Better Chinese Food: Frequently Asked Questions

A little more than a month ago, I posted my plea for better Chinese food for Prospect Heights. So far, a hundred of you have lent your name to this noble cause. Maybe you heard about the campaign on Patch, Edible Brooklyn, or the New York Post, which dubbed me a “gourmand grouser,” then went looking for someone who didn’t work for Rupert Murdoch to criticize me and this campaign. It had little success, even among local Chinese-restaurant owners—and the Post reporter, who told me she lives nearby, signed the petition. For those of you who read Chinese, a mainland news site picked up the essence of the Post story, but not its tabloid edge. “To those who love authentic Chinese food, sesame chicken and General Tso’s are no longer cutting it.” (Translation courtesy Jiayang Fan.)

I’ve been asked a number of questions since posting the petition, and would like to answer them here.

Why a petition? Who are you submitting it to?

I’m aware that there is not one person standing in the way of Prospect Heights having better Chinese food. We are fortunate that the United States does not have a command economy, and that New York does not have a Commissioner of Ethnic Cuisine. The goal is to demonstrate that there is a critical mass of local diners who want better Chinese food—in other words, to show wary entrepreneurs that there is a local market.

What kind of Chinese restaurant?

The initial post called on a handful of better Chinese restaurants to establish an outpost in Prospect Heights. Back when I lived in Chelsea, a decade ago or more, Grand Sichuan International, on 24th and 9th, brought ma la, Mao’s home cooking, and other intriguing delights to a residential neighborhood without a critical mass of recent Chinese immigrants. It also offered dishes with fresh-killed, more flavorful chickens, for a premium. It no doubt had a lively takeout business, but was better as a sit-down meal, and often had a line at the dinner hour. This seems like a good model. (Although not anymore; last month, I had a dispiriting lunch there; the menus still say Grand Sichuan, but the awning says Chelsea Chinese.)

But I’m open. Thanks to the petition, I’ve since spoken to a couple of chefs with their own ideas about making better Chinese food for a Western audience. Both approaches sound great, but they aren’t signing leases in Prospect Heights yet.

Also, during a recent lunch at Lao Di Fang, a hole in the wall at the base of the Manhattan Bridge, I had a vision of a hand-pulled noodle establishment taking over the space of a Prospect Heights fried-rice-and-chicken-wing joint and remove the bulletproof glass. It had lines around the block.

What are the biggest obstacles to bringing a better Chinese restaurant to Prospect Heights?

After numerous discussions, three themes keep coming up:

  • Some Chinese-American restaurateurs underestimate the adventuresome spirit of New York eaters, or are uninterested in the foodie quest for authenticity (whatever that means). They may offer more solicitous service to non-Chinese customers, but they don’t necessarily feed them the same dishes as they give their landsmen.
  • Leases are getting more expensive in Prospect Heights, and I’m told it’s getting harder to find a landlord who will rent to a restaurant, especially to someone who wants a liquor license.
  • Nobody has focused on this as a problem in need of a solution.

Let me know if you have other theories.

Can it be a vegan (kosher, nut-free, lactose-intolerant, glutenrein…) Chinese restaurant?

If a chef decides to take his or her establishment in one of these directions, I will not complain. But in the interest of maintaining a broad coalition, let’s not impose constraints beyond “better.”

What about Brooklyn Heights (Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Riverdale, …)? We don’t have good Chinese food options, either.

Start your own petition. Follow this template. Improve upon it. And I’m happy to link and spread the word, and will offer guidance—free to a point, then in exchange for better Chinese food. And I wish you success. May a thousand restaurants bloom!

Have you tried Tofu on 7th, in Park Slope?

Yes. It’s better than anything we have now, and their three-mile delivery radius would seem to include Prospect Heights. But I think we can do better.

How do I reach you?

Use the contact form, or send a message to gourmand dot grouser at gmail dot com. We’re also on Twitter as @gourmandgrouser

So where do we go from here?

Read this. But don’t forget to sign the petition.

Updated January 24, 2013.

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