California Cuisine Moves to New York City

Mar 16, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Alicia Lieu, Food Fun, How I Met My Dinner

by Alicia Lieu

When people find out that I’m originally from San Jose, California, there are typically a few responses that I get. “What are you doing out here?” “Why would you leave the beautiful weather?” and often times a rendition of, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” followed by, “Are you even old enough to know that song?”

These are all legitimate questions, I suppose. And while I do miss the weather, especially during the winter months, what I truly miss besides not having to pay New York City taxes, are the culinary benefits of living in a highly agricultural state. The data I’ve seen says that most of the almonds, walnuts, and pistachios in the United States come from California. California ranks the highest in the production of avocados, celery, broccoli, lettuce, grapes, lemons, and plums.

The “Happy Cows Come from California” campaign a few years back brought more visibility to the dairy industry in California. The Happy Cow commercials can still be seen on Naturally, restaurants in California have long taken advantage of the availability of fresh, seasonal and varietal produce. Also, with a high concentration of Asian immigrants in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, growers are now meeting a demand for Asian fruits and vegetables.

Since moving to New York, I have had to adjust to the fact that produce travels farther to get to my table. “Salad” on a menu sometimes means shredded iceberg lettuce, often times wilted, with a few strands of shredded carrot strewn on top. And in order to get lettuce and tomato on your hamburger, you have to order it “deluxe”. Having added In-N-Out Burger as one of the major food groups during college, I will never accept the idea that a hamburger doesn’t automatically come with lettuce and tomato.

While In-N-Out Burger has not yet opened in New York, there are many fast food chains that have made their way to the East Coast from California: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s, Panda Express, Baja Fresh, and so have beverages from California: Jamba Juice, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and Blue Bottle Coffee. IHOP and Johnny Rockets have also made their way to New York, along with Umami Burger from Los Angeles and Mission Chinese Food from San Francisco. Thomas Keller (French Laundry in Napa Valley) has opened Per Se and Bouchon Bakery inside the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.

Mission Chinese Dragon

I went looking for the California experience in New York and based upon my coworker’s recommendation, I found myself a taste of San Francisco when we went for a late night dinner after work. My coworkers and I trekked, in the rain, all the way to the Lower East Side from the Upper West Side and arrived at Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese around 10 p.m.

We waited about 45 minutes for a table but we were assured that it would be worth the wait. The place seated 30 people at most with a long communal table, a few modular tables, and a bar. While Mission Chinese Food is located right next to Chinatown, it draws a completely different crowd.

I looked around the restaurant and realized that this was the hippest Chinese food joint at which I had ever dined. Upon surveying the crowd, I realized that I had become an accidental hipster that night. I had never been asked if I preferred complimentary sparkling or non-sparkling water at a Chinese restaurant before. In fact, you usually have to request water be brought to your table in Chinatown. All the dishes we had were bursting with flavor and texture but the highlights of the meal for me were the Thrice Cooked Pork and the Mapo Tofu. We also ordered the Hainanese Eggplant, Kung Pao Pastrami, and Braised Pea Greens, all of which were delicious and enhanced by the addition of a side of rice and a beer. Perhaps the best feeling of the evening came from the fact that Mission Chinese donates 75 cents from each entree to the Food Bank of New York.

Mapo tofu is an extremely popular dish in China. The story behind it is that a restaurant owner who was limited in resources simply used whatever she had on hand to create a dish, and it happened to be fantastically delicious. “Ma” means pock-faced and “Po” means wife. So the dish is famously named after her. I have included two versions of Mapo Tofu. The first one is found in Bon Appetit by Danny Bowien as served at Mission Chinese Food–you can find a link to that recipe below. The second one is a simpler version that does not require as much preparation time.

The recipe for MAPO TOFU by Danny Bowien Of Mission Chinese Food In San Francisco, California can be found on

Tofu isn’t just for vegetarian dishes. Bowien’s take on a traditional recipe combines it with slow-cooked, fall-apart pork shoulder in a spicy, chile-laced sauce. 8–10 Servings.


16 ounces of soft tofu (cubed)
1 teaspoon garlic (minced)
1 teaspoon ginger (minced)
1 tablespoon green onion (chopped)
1/3 pound ground pork

Mapo Tofu

1 teaspoon chili bean paste
1 tablespoon cooking wine
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon Sichuan pepper powder
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons green onion (chopped) to garnish
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1. Poach tofu in simmering water for 3 minutes. Then drain.
2. Heat 3 tablespoons oil on high heat and stir fry the ground pork with the garlic, ginger, green onion, chili bean paste, Sichuan pepper powder, cooking wine, and soy sauce.
3. When the pork is cooked through, add the 1 1/2 cups water, salt, and tofu and cook for 3 minutes.
4. Mix the cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of water then add it to the pot and stir to thicken.
5. Garnish with chopped green onion. Serve immediately.

Check back every month for Alicia’s next food column & check out past columns in our Food Fun section. You can follow Alicia on Twitter @AliciaJLieu.

Alicia Lieu grew up in Cupertino, California. She has Master’s Degree in Music Composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Bachelor of Art from UC Santa Barbara. A New Yorker with the heart of a Californian, she currently resides in Queens, NY and blogs about food in Jackson Heights.

1 Comment

  1. Very nice indeed.


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