In Praise of American Chinese Food

Writer Clara Wang gives the history of the country's most well-known American Chinese chains, and calls out the dishes they do best

What's your favorite American Chinese dish?

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Clara Wang

In former Baohouse restaurateur and premier arbiter of Asian American Male Angst Eddie Huang’s movie Boogie, the main character goes on a tirade about how “Only the Chinese are willing to bow their heads and serve something stupid and basic as beef and broccoli.”

Beef and broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, sweet and sour pork, orange chicken. These American Chinese dishes are often seen as reductions of what Chinese food is, catered to an American palate. And boy, are they hits: Beef and broccoli is so pervasive in pop culture that artists like Dej Loaf and Immortal Technique have laid tracks named after the dish, and General Tso’s chicken was one of Kissinger’s favorites.

All across the United States, in the little food courts ubiquitous to airports and malls and corner takeout spots scattered through suburbia, chain restaurants like Panda Express, Manchu Wok, P.F. Chang's, and Leann Chin serve up these steadfast American staples to hungry crowds looking for something just unfamiliar enough to be exciting. For many East Asian AmericansChinese or notwho grew up in these suburbs, beef and broccoli or Kung Pao chicken was shorthand for “Oriental.” Many of us then grew up, moved to big cities, and accrued the experience and resources to condemn our former mall fare as unsophisticated white-washed reductions of identity, and their purveyors as having kowtowed to dominant culture.

They were restaurant pioneers who staked their own claim in Americana and then fruitfully multiplied, turning a successful restaurant that feeds your family and sends your kids to school into shiny clean money machines in every strip mall and drive-through. To buy a piece of the American Dream, they sold the Oriental Fantasy.

However, the stories of American Chinese food and the chains built upon it are as wide and varied as waves of Chinese immigration, like how General Tso’s chicken came from chefs on the losing side of a war and how Manchu Wok was incepted as a strip mall cash cow from the start by a doctor from Hong Kong who sold it to his colleagues as an investment venture. The immigrants, and children of immigrants, who succeeded in building national franchises off iterations of familiar favorites are just as diverse, and embody the most American story of all: Bigger, better, more. They were restaurant pioneers who staked their own claim in Americana and then fruitfully multiplied, turning a successful restaurant that feeds your family and sends your kids to school into shiny clean money machines in every strip mall and drive-through. To buy a piece of the American Dream, they sold the Oriental Fantasy.

This article celebrates American Chinese food as a genre, and breaks down the history of these classic dishes and some of the biggest Asian American-owned franchises that serve them.

General Tso’s Chicken

General Tso's chicken

Illustration by Vivian Lai

When chef Peng Chang-Kuei landed in 1970s New York City from Taiwan, he found that not only were Sinophilic New Yorkers ravenous for Chinese cooking, they were already enjoying an iteration of his signature creation. Peng had fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Nationalist government was toppled, joining a wave of overseas chefs who helped to preserve regional Chinese cooking techniques at a time when the Chinese Cultural Revolution labeled gastronomy as bourgeoisie, and famine and food rationing made complicated cooking impossible. Perhaps nostalgic for his home province, he created a chicken dish with the bold, bright heat of Hunan (a province known for fieriness in its food as well as its politicians and the birthplace of Communist leader Chairman Mao) and named it after 19th Century hometown hero General Tso (Zuo Zong Tang).

Peng’s invention was poached by the entrepreneurial Tsung Ting Wang, who had stumbled upon Peng’s invention in Taiwan while searching for the next big thing due to the oversaturation of Sichuan restaurants in New York. Wang’s breaded, sweeter version proved so popular many New Yorkers thought Peng was the one ripping off Wang.

Wang’s breaded, sweeter version proved so popular many New Yorkers thought Peng was the one ripping off Wang. 

Best at: Leann Chin

While celebrity chefs popularized the nuances of regional cuisine in the big city, a Guangzhou grocer’s daughter raising six children in South Minneapolis set up shop as a seamstress, and gave her clients Sichuanese and Cantonese dishes as thank you presents. Demand for Leann Chin’s food quickly outpaced demand for her dresses, and she opened her first restaurant in 1980 in the Bonaventure Shopping Mall. Sean Connery became an investor after meeting her at a party she catered, and General Mills bought her recipes for Betty Crocker’s Chinese Cookbook in 1981. She also sold them her name and restaurants in 1984, and proceeded to buy the business back four years later, retiring in 1999 with plenty of grandchildren. Today, there are 50-some locations throughout the midwest, and her daughter Katie works as a chef in L.A.

Their General Tso’s chicken gets the batter just right: the perfect little nuggets of chicken aren’t overly sticky or rubbery, and subtle citrus notes shine through.

Sweet and Sour Pork

Some American Chinese staples didn’t change form in America, or barely at all. Sweet and sour pork, or gu lou rou, is almost exactly the same as its Cantonese originator. The chunks of battered, deep-fried pork, sometimes stir-fried with vegetables or pineapple and covered in a sweet sauce, derives its use of sugar and vinegar from Cantonese cooking. “Rou”or “yook” in Cantonesemeans meat, and the rest of the warbling name has as many conflicting origin stories as the dish. “Gu lao” in Mandarin means “ancient,” but the modern, boneless version of the dish is said to stem from relatively recent Chinese history. According to SCMP, Western traders in the 1800s who landed in Guangdong enjoyed the sweet-and-sour flavor of a pork dish from a town called Chencun, but found pork ribs too messy to navigate with silverware, and asked local chefs to cook it with pork shoulder instead. Here is where the origin story differs again: “Wu lou,” which easily rolls over to “gu lou,” is what locals derogatively called Westerners. However, “gu” or “gu lou” also sounds like “good!,” which the natives must’ve parroted after satisfied Westerners kept ordering more.

“Wu lou,” which easily rolls over to “gu lou,” is what locals derogatively called Westerners. However, “gu” or “gu lou” also sounds like “good!,” which the natives must’ve parroted after satisfied Westerners kept ordering more.

When Chinese workers came to lay the tracks for America’s railroads, it became “sweet and sour pork.”

Best at: P.F. Chang’s

Phillip Chiang learned from his formidable mother, acclaimed restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, that taste is a matter of cultivation. Cecilia’s success with The Mandarin(s) cultivated the tastes of 20th Century American elite to view Chinese banquet food as elevated, and Phillip cultivated the rest of the United States to view Chinese chain restaurants as “approachable” enough to take your family out for special occasions. With the help of partner Paul Fleming (the P.F. in P.F Chang’s), Phillip started a pan-Asian restaurant empire in 1993 emphasizing brightly lit, open kitchens, elegant decor, and quality ingredients. Their sweet and sour pork features chunks of fresh pineapple and a crispy texture.

Orange Chicken

Orange chicken

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Orange Chicken is like the little cousin of General Tso’s who left the mainland for the gooey sunshine and thick tanginess of the islands.

Orange Chicken is like the little cousin of General Tso’s who left the mainland for the gooey sunshine and thick tanginess of the islands. An executive chef of Panda Express, Andy Kao, was looking to open a branch of the franchise in Hawaii and ended up being inspired by an island bone-in chicken dish (although I searched hard and failed to find official confirmation of this, my speculation is huli huli chicken). He stripped the chicken of bones and spice, sprinkled some extra sugar, and in 1987 Panda Express debuted what could be argued is their version of General Tso’s. 

Best at: Panda Express

Orange chicken is Panda Express’s signature dish and inseparable from the brand. Panda Express was designed by tech-minded Chinese immigrants with mathematics and engineering degrees to highlight efficiency and innovation from its inception in Pasadena, California in 1973. Andrew Cherng and his family were part of the post-Chinese civil war migration out of the mainland, settling first in Taiwan and then Japan before Cherng arrived in Kansas to get his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Baker University, where he met his wife Peggy Tsiang (who also earned a bachelor degree in mathematics and a doctorate in electrical engineering). He opened Panda Inn with his father, chef Ming-Tsai Cherng in 1973 in Pasadena and Tsiang joined them by 1982. They partnered with then-UCLA football coach and real-estate moguls Terry Donahue and his brother Dan to move a fast-food version of the sit-down Panda Inn into the Glendale Galleria food court, and Panda Express was born.

Tsiang quickly put her background in systems engineering to use and the chain rapidly boomed, as they scaled up through systems analysis and logistical standardization to the global phenomenon they are today through half a century. It’s all kept in the family, toorather than a franchise model, the Cherngs invest and operate out of the privately held Cherng Family Trust.

Beef and Broccoli

Beef and broccoli

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Beef and broccoli is a perfect example of the United State’s immigration stir-fry. Broccoli is not a native ingredient to China, and in fact wasn’t even popular in the United States until the 1920s, when it was introduced by Italian immigrants. Beef and broccoli likely descended from a common Chinese dish that uses a Chinese variant of broccoli, gai lan chao niu rou, or Chinese broccoli fried beef. Since gai lan (Chinese broccoli) wasn’t easily available in the United States, its Western counterpart became an easy substituteespecially since broccoli was starting to be grown as a commercial crop in early 20th-Century California, where there were a lot of Chinese immigrants.

Since gai lan (Chinese broccoli) wasn’t easily available in the United States, its Western counterpart became an easy substitute.

Best at: Manchu Wok

Manchu Wok was founded in 1980 by a group of Hong Kong immigrants in Ontario, Canada, who saw the gold rush in Westernized Chinese food chains and rushed to grab themselves a piece. Dr. Jack Lew got some of his fellow countrymen onboard as investors and hired a food service equipment consultant to design and help build stores specifically for strip malls and food courts. By 1992 there were 113 Manchu Wok units across Canada and the United States, and he sold to Scott’s Hospitality Inc., after which the brand bounced between investor groups and proliferated to become the largest Chinese restaurant chain in Canada, with locations across the world. Their beef and broccoli is deliciously savory, with crisp broccoli and tender beef.

Published on July 25, 2023

Words by Clara Wang

Clara Wang is a freelance writer spending the year in Nashville who mostly muses about food, culture, sex, and the unbearable lightness of being a 5’0” Yellow girl quicker on her feet than Borat’s lawyers. Her work has been featured in publications such as Eater Austin, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, Daily Dot, and Giddy.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.