There are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States (for reference, there are approximately 25,800 Subway14,000 McDonalds, and 2,000 Chipotle locations). Arguably the top Chinese fast food chains, Panda Express and P.F. Chang's, make up about 2,000 and 210 of those 40,000, respectively. These two companies in particular have played major roles in popularizing an arguably monolithic conception of Chinese cuisine in America, that of sweet-and-sour, fried, and steamed foods. For businesses trying to build their own empire within the Chinese-American food scene, the number and continued influence of these titans are daunting.

Companies like Panda Express have served as an effective entry point, but an increasing demand for greater authenticity has become a major driving factor in the emergence of contemporary Chinese cuisine. What is it like to try and build a brand that can grow to compete with those that currently dominate the scene? How do these restaurants negotiate appealing to a largely Western clientele, while retaining more traditional elements? Junzi Kitchen is one of these businesses; CEO Yong sat down with Spoon NYU to provide some insights into these challenges.

*Bonus: Scroll to the bottom for a sweet offer!

Katie Sun

A Brief History of Chinese Food in America

The first Chinese immigrants in the United States arrived in 1849 in response to the flood of miners during the Gold Rush, seeking their own wealth by way of the service industry. In "Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America," UC Irvine history professor Yong Chen writes that two qualities were essential to its 'popularization': affordability and convenience, notably not gastronomical value. However, after the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the number of restaurants exponentially increased, as one of the few ways left for those looking to immigrate to California was through the acquisition of a merchant visa.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 'chop suey,' or "Odds & Ends," surged in popularity, and although debate still persists about whether or not it can be categorized as authentic, along with if it derives from China, or is an entirely American invention, chop suey has undoubtedly contributed to the popularization of Chinese cuisine in America. According to Chen, "chop suey" refers to the process of stir-frying, rather than to a specific dish itself, and it was thus particularly receptive to "Americanization," in order to suit the palate of its customer base.

pepper, vegetable, meat, onion, broccoli, chicken, stir-fry, carrot
Meg Brownley

Chinese dishes continued to swell in popularity, evolving in response to the demands of consumers. As immigration policies changed, new regional cuisines (including Sichuan and Fujianese) were introduced to the scene, interrupting the previous domination of Cantonese cuisine. After President Nixon's televised 1972 visit to Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the demand for Chinese food dramatically increased; the Chinese-American Restaurant Association estimated the rate of growth at one restaurant each week. Fast forward 11 years, and Andrew and Peggy Cherng opened the first Panda Express location in Glendale, California. Just 10 years later, the company opened its 100th location.

For more information on the sheer number of Chinese-American restaurants in the U.S., click here.

The Rise of the Fast Casual Restaurant

Panda Express's success in building a restaurant empire can perhaps be attributed to an innovative and scalable business model. The company is credited with starting the "fast-casual" restaurant model, trading in full table service with an emphasis on fresher ingredients. The trend arose as a response to shifting lifestyles and a growing emphasis in the United States on healthier eating. It has proved to be more than profitable, drawing sales away from both fast-food businesses and the restaurant industry with accessibility and affordability at the forefront of the business model, and without sacrificing food quality. From 2011 to 2016 alone, fast-casual sales increased from $15.7 billion to $26 billion, and they are continuing to grow at a faster rate than fast-food or full-service restaurants.

Why is this model so successful? Scalability. According to the Washington Post, these counter-service operations are not only cheaper to run (in terms of manpower, real estate, etc.), but they also don't require a constantly rotating menu, and can be operated without a high level of technical skill.

Olivia Kelly

However, Panda Express's rise to the top hasn't been without its dissenters; the company regularly receives backlash from those who view its claim to authenticity and its modified cuisine as propagating an inaccurate depiction of traditional Chinese cuisine. Chef David Chang, known for founding the critically acclaimed Momofuku restaurant group, said in a statement to the New York Times, "Do I gnaw on my own thumb, or do I get orange chicken? The thing I know will always be good is that orange chicken... after 1,800 locations, to be that consistently mediocre is unbelievable."

Chang's sentiments are hardly few and far between, and numerous articles and videos have popped up in the media criticizing the authenticity of Panda Express. These dissenters seem to agree that some significant compromises have been made in order to appeal to the masses. One such example may be, perhaps, the "Chork," a chopstick-fork-hybrid described as an "American Chinese original" designed to be symbolic of "a bridge between two cultures."

Orange chicken, Panda Express's signature dish, is responsible for about a third of its sales and has been on the menu since 1987. According to their website, the dish is "inspired by flavors of the Hunan Province," also incorporating Hawaiian influences, and evolved in response to its surroundings. This "fusion" is perhaps more representative of the company's ethos; Panda Express is not an 'authentic Chinese restaurant,' but a new blend of 'Chinese-American cuisine.' As company CMO Andrea Cherng stated to Business Insider, "Our us a great deal of responsibility...for many guests, they come to us because they trust us...we were their first taste of Chinese cuisine." The business focuses more on introducing traditional dishes in a more palatable way to the zeitgeist and serving as an entry point to Chinese cuisine, rather than chasing standards of authenticity. As 'innovation chef' Jimmy Wang stated,

"We want to make sure that whatever we change isn't a sacrifice, but an enhancement... We don't want to be so focused on the history of it that we forget that we need to make a delicious dish at the end of the day."

Whichever side you as a consumer may take, companies who want to aspire to Panda Express's level of success in becoming a pillar of Chinese-American Cuisine will have to decide for themselves what the balance between authenticity and accessibility is.

On Building an Empire, ft. Junzi Kitchen

with words from CEO Yong Zhao

Katie Sun

Junzi Kitchen is one such company. Founded by a team of Chinese graduate students at Yale, the business attempts to simplify the experience of more traditional, Northeastern Chinese flavors for Western diners by presenting it in a familiar, customizable, 'Chipotle-style' packaging. In short, traditional flavors with a modernized presentation, in every sense. The menu is built around two core items: noodles and bing. The 'build-your-own-bowl' process allows for the potentially novel dishes to be broken down into familiar components. Customers first pick their base and then select a sauce, a protein (chicken, beef, pork, tofu, etc.), vegetables, and finish off with a garnish (items include bean threads, scallions, chive ash, and chili oil). Simple as that.

CEO and co-founder Yong Zhao conceptualized Junzi in response to his own collegiate experience: a lack of culinary options near campus, a need for convenience, a desire for familiar flavors while studying abroad, and an interest in startups.

"If you think about Chinese food, what comes to mind?" Zhao questions. "Panda Express and P. F. Changs. These companies have been major innovators in bringing one idea of Chinese cuisine to the table, but there isn't anything on the market right now that offers authentic, casual, everyday food that reflects both our roots, and our culture as it is now." And as young Chinese-American students themselves navigating both their Chinese and American identities, Zhao and his team feel as though they are the right people to find that balance.

The key? Changing the experience of eating, rather than the food itself.

Katie Sun

Modernized touches are instead incorporated in the "communication" of the food. This instinct is already apparent; the bing are often crudely translated as burritos or crepes. Zhao and his co-founders sought to create a restaurant experience that moved away from more common themes of palaces and dragons, and from color schemes of red and gold. Zhao states, "Our experience of a modern, growing Chinese country didn't fit what we were seeing." The statistics he provides seem to support his claims: the over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States have an average review on Yelp of 3.3/5.0, about 0.5 lower than the average Yelp score, not only due to concerns about the food itself, but also with the atmosphere.

In response, Junzi's ingredients borrow from a long tradition of seasonality, and the menu is adapted to include what is historically available (which also explains the uptick in pickled and preserved options during the wintertime). Even sustainability is given its fair share of attention; the restaurant was the first in New Haven to compost food-waste. The stores themselves are specifically conceived by their in-house designer to emphasize openness, employing more minimalist, industrial design elements and maximizing light.

The dishes do not have the focus on hyper-authenticity that a lot of contemporary Chinese cuisine stress. Chef and Culinary Director Lucas Sin acknowledges that even the most basic, universal dishes have numerous interpretations, and so the emphasis is instead placed on simple elements. Most importantly, flavor is never compromised, but the menu is built around avoiding certain, more acquired tastes (particularly those that are bitter or especially pungent), and including those that are familiar in other forms, like fermented and pickled veggies.

Bowls are also built with different dietary restrictions in mind, with options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free diets. 25% of protein consumption is tofu, and one of the company's major goals is to convert more consumers to plant-based products. Those who grew up in Chinese households will likely find some elements deeply nostalgic, like the "tomato and egg sauce" option, profoundly reminiscent of the much-adored, rustic, home-style stir-fried recipe that graced many a generation's dinner table.

The bottom line: food as a vessel for culture.

These efforts to bridge cultures are reflected in Junzi's numerous other endeavors. Junzi's monthly Chef's Table series involves a 5-7 course tasting menu curated around a specific cultural or historical theme. Past menus have drawn inspiration from Chinese-Dominican cuisine and 14th century imperial Chinese food therapy. The restaurant also offers an "After Hours" menu touting "Chinese-inspired dorm room drunk food," which incorporates options from chicken wings, to vegetable dumplings, to Vitasoy cocktails.

They even recently hosted a Chinese New Year Market that featured local Chinese businesses, in order to bring greater awareness to the community.

"We want to become a bridge for multiculturalism. We want to become grassroots ambassadors of bridging cultures on an international scale through food, while helping local communities curate a better food culture. This is the new American dream," says Zhao.

Is Junzi Kitchen the new Panda Express? Is it the next Sweetgreen or Chipotle? None of the above, but it isn't trying to be. Junzi isn't perfect, but it's a step in a new direction and a new definition of Chinese-American cuisine. If nothing else, Junzi is a devastatingly good combination of nostalgia and innovation. It is deeply personal and easily accessible.

*Note: This post is not sponsored. Junzi Kitchen is offering NYU students 15% off on their orders through March 19th, 2019. Just click here to access the coupon.