"Chinese food" in San Antonio has historically meant American Chinese staples such as General Tso’s chicken, a dish with contested origins that first rose to culinary fame in Manhattan in the 1970s. The dish reflects America’s love for all things sticky-sweet and deep-fried, and it shares space in the pantheon of American Chinese staples with other items that you can find at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, cream cheese-filled wontons and starch-thickened egg drop soup among them.
American Chinese food is as diverse as America itself: Missouri has the egg foo young St. Paul sandwich and Boston its “Peking ravioli.”
Likewise, Chinese food within China is incredibly varied, with eight major regional culinary traditions. I lived for nine years in Beijing, where hearty bread dumplings called baozi and starchy meat and vegetables dishes from northeastern China helped chase away the winter cold. I spent two more years in Shanghai, which favors the lighter, subtler palates of culinary traditions in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang — it’s hard to come by American-style thick-glazed dishes in Shanghai.
Fortunately, San Antonio’s understanding of Chinese cuisine has expanded greatly over the past several years. From restaurants zooming in on regionally specific Chinese foodways to a new generation of San Antonio chefs seeking to articulate a locally rooted cuisine drawing on pan-Asian influences, the city’s access to both traditional and novel takes on Chinese cuisine is growing.
One newcomer to the scene is Shifu Noodle, which specializes in dishes from Sichuan province in Southwestern China. Co-founders Chrystal Yi and Wendy Jiang signed a contract on the space a few days before the pandemic, opened in August, and have done a booming trade since, serving regional specialties including crispy wok-fried green beans and numbing, spicy dandan noodles.
“People from a younger generation like us are willing to try new things,” says Yi, an Incarnate Word University graduate who’s been in San Antonio for eight years. She’s originally from Hunan province, which like Sichuan, is famous for its spicy food. “It’s the same in China nowadays — the restaurant industry is having a revolution, and traditional restaurants are [finding it] hard to compete due to new business concepts and changing tastes.”
Shifu Noodle taps the same culinary vein as Sichuan House, which has been serving San Antonio high-quality Sichuanese fare since 2015. One of that restaurant’s biggest early challenges was to expand what customers understood about the food on the menu, says co-owner Kristina Zhao.
“We put so much effort into people experiencing the culture, the family-style eating, the opportunity to connect with our guests and explain where these dishes come from,” she says.
Before the pandemic, 85% of Sichuan House’s business was dine-in, with emphasis placed on “finding ways to bridge the cultural gap,” such as referring to pig intestines with the more locally familiar term “tripas.”
“Those interactions are so important in getting people to try something new,” Zhao says.
Beijing-born San Antonio resident Ming Qian entered the culinary scene in 2011 with what remains her signature item: the sloopy, a steamed bun that places a Chinese flavor profile (star anise, ginger and scallion) into a format familiar to the Texan palate (a pulled-pork taco). She successfully opened the second location of her restaurant Ming’s Thing last month, crediting the ingenuity of her staff, some of whom come from the nearby Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
Rob Martinez is one of the CIA graduates creating new dishes at Ming’s, where the menu draws on East and Southeast Asian influences. Martinez’s mother was the head chef of a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, and his stepfather was a military cook during Vietnam. After graduating from CIA in 2018 and completing an externship at Momofuku Ma Peche in New York, Martinez landed a part-time job at Ming’s Thing that turned into a full-time managerial role this year.
“During my time at Ming’s, I’ve seen such a different feeling and overall readiness to embrace change in flavor, but also change in dining experience,” Martinez says. He added that generational “shifts in management,” such as Kristina Zhao’s work at Sichuan House, have resulted in more modern takes on Asian food and a “hip edge to traditional Chinese flavors and dishes.”
Another restaurant braving the pandemic for a November opening is Best Quality Daughter, a “New Asian American” concept from Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin and Quealy Watson of Tenko Ramen in the Pearl. Dobbertin’s family ran an American diner when she was growing up, but after work hours, she ate Chinese food prepared by her mother. She describes her new venture as “a mishmash of what it is to be a child of a hybrid immigrant American family.”
The menu will feature a few China-Texas hybrids, including breakfast taco dumplings and a red-braised beef rib prepared barbecue-style. Dobbertin says there’s an “eagerness to learn” in the Alamo City’s culinary scene.
“San Antonio is eager for our-generation Asian American food,” she adds.
Sichuan House’s Kristina Zhao echoes the sentiment: “There’s more representation in the city, and that’s exciting. … I’m really glad to see that there is an increase in awareness of the varieties of authenticity, and the acceptance of wanting to try new things.”
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