Chu, Carl - Chinese Food Finder: The Bay Area and San Francisco
I am generally leery of English-language write-ups of Chinese food; in my experience, they tend to portray Chinese food as something exotic and foreign at worst and as something non-normative at best. More importantly, the Chinese food that they talk about is not my Chinese food, which is normal, everyday and comfortingly familiar. Also, either I can't figure out what the books are talking about because the names are funny transliterated English (ex. "Dragon Phoenix Soup") that make sense in Chinese but not really in English or because they're talking about stuff that I don't eat very often (ex. banquet food from the seventies).
I don't think I'm an expert on Chinese food; if pressed, I'd find it hard to talk about what makes Shanghainese Shanghainese or Cantonese Cantonese. But given that I lived eight years in Taiwan and that my parents and their social circle are all foodies and enjoy all kinds of Chinese food, I figure I know what I like.
Anyway. The best part about this book is that it didn't need the massive introduction up top, because as far as I can tell, it is written by someone who knows a ton about all sorts of Chinese food and by someone who knows a ton about the Bay Area. I just said all the stuff up there so you will all understand why I am so excited about a Chinese food guide!
Seriously! I have been looking and looking for something like this! I love restaurant reviews and talk of food, and I especially love knowing where to eat locally, but a lot of the Chinese food I eat here (even here! Bay Area!) pales in comparison to Taiwan. Also, the high-rating restaurants on things like Yelp often end up having excellent sweet and sour, which is usually not what I'm looking for.
So. This book is awesome! It confirms my suspicions that most good Chinese food is not actually in SF Chinatown, but in suburban strip malls in Milpitas, Cupertino and Millbrae, and that I am not making things up when I say my eyes glaze over looking at most Chinese restaurant menus ("Same old, same old...").
And! Chu introduces various regional Chinese cuisines, from Szechuan to Cantonese to Hong Kong cafes! Alas and alack, he only mentions Taiwanese food briefly (not that I eat much of it here or at home, aside from street food-y things). But! He really seems to know what he's talking about! He gives a brief introduction to each region's cuisine and describes it, and then he gives a list of fairly typical dishes that the region is known for (with Chinese characters as well as the English! So I know what he's talking about!).
I disagree with him on quite a few points; he's rather snobby and thinks Szechuan is the epitome of Chinese cuisine because of its complexity and looks down on the simplicity of Cantonese and Hakka food. Also, he insults my beloved you tiao/oil sticks and other such "peasant" food. On the other hand -- he talks about Hong Kong cafes and "Western" Chinese food (curry, spaghetti with an egg on top, steak with an egg on top, pretty much anything with dairy in it) and Asian bakeries and the wheat/rice split and Islamic Chinese food and almost everything he says sounds familiar, even though I didn't know I knew them! And I forgive him because he recognizes the superiority of the Cantonese way of preparing seafood. And he has a section on noodles and dumplings, beloved cornerstones of my fooding experiences.
And! Best yet! Almost all of my favorite restaurants are in there! This means I can trust his recommendations! And he tells you exactly what to get at each restaurant, so you are not accidentally stuck with the English menu with generic stuff like General Tso's chicken and chow mein. And he doesn't just rec fancy places, he recs hole-in-wall places as well. He doesn't have all my favorite restaurants in there (he misses some of my favorite street-food-esque places), but he's got a good 90%, which is pretty damn impressive.
And! I was telling my mom about some of it, and she seemed to think it sounded fairly accurate as well! I feel the book cannot get a higher rec than that.
Even though I am grumpy with his snobbery, I am still overjoyed to find a book on my food, on the food I eat, in a language I can easily read. My food! I cannot emphasize this enough! I rarely eat Chinese any more because I hate bad Chinese so much, and it's gotten to the point when I don't realize I miss it, but once I have it... oh. It is like going home.
Chu's written a similar food finder for LA (Asian food heaven) and NY, and it looks like he has a general-purpose guide to regional Chinese cuisine coming out later this year. I am planning on flipping through it; if it's even a little more detailed than this book, I am buying it.
Just... OMG! I FOUND A BOOK ABOUT CHINESE FOOD THAT DOESN'T SUCK!