I’m sitting at a window table in Four Seas, a Chinese-American restaurant that’s occupied the corner of S King Street and Eighth Avenue S in the Chinatown/International District neighborhood since the ’60s. It’s a Wednesday evening, sure, but there is not one other seat filled in the capacious dining room. It’s a ghost town—barely recognizable from its heyday as a destination for wealthy white folks dining on garlic spareribs and egg foo young. Although clearly not busy, the kitchen sends out our plate of chow fun in black bean sauce without the black bean sauce. We eat it anyway.
It’s perhaps easy, at first glance, to see why Four Seas is so maligned on virtually every online review site. Bastardized southern Chinese dishes were made popular by the “chop suey restaurants,” like this one, that emerged around the turn of the 20th century. Four Seas is owned by the same folks who own Tai Tung, which opened in 1935 and is also in the ID (and has retained much of its original menu, except for the white bread sandwiches). What both restaurants serve is the sort of guilty-pleasure food we enjoy most frequently in sweatpants at home. Chinese-American cuisine is both nationally loved and reviled: nostalgic comfort food for many, but discredited for being a second-rate version of something better, purer.
“There are plenty of people who deride chop suey for being inauthentic,” says Maxine Chan, a local food historian whose knowledge of Chinese food in the U.S., and particularly Seattle, is encyclopedic. “But I really resent that term. [Chinese-Americans] were the forerunners of really taking an idea that was traditional and using [ingredients that were] local and available—see how it switches when we use today’s vernacular? What the f**k is authentic anyway?”
As an enthusiastic food nerd, world traveler and wife to a first-generation American-Chinese (and Thai/Lao/Vietnamese) man, I suffer a fair amount of guilt associated with enjoying the occasional sweet-and-sour prawn—something akin, I would imagine, to a gourmand admitting that she kind of, sort of doesn’t mind Guy Fieri. Or ordering a burger with processed orange cheese instead of aged cheddar. I eat General Tso’s and Happy Family with my own family, but not my in-laws. Don’t get me wrong: I love the authentic (let’s call them traditional, instead) dishes—whole steamed fish, soft tofu—I’ve been introduced to through meals with the family I married into. (I’ve never seen anyone pick a chicken foot clean like my mother-in-law.) But I also have a soft spot in my heart—and my belly—for the Americanized dishes served at the chop suey joints in my sleepy California hometown, here in Seattle and across the country.
Across town from Four Seas, the newly opened New Luck Toy is having no problem filling seats. The kitschy bar, inspired by the long-closed West Seattle institution of the same name, has been so busy since its October opening that co-owner Mark Fuller (of Spring Hill/Ma‘ono fame) is running plates of General Tso’s and fried rice himself. He says people are drawn to Chinese food for its “bold, fatty flavors and great textures.” He’s not wrong—his General Tso’s chicken is the best I’ve had. Where Four Seas is flailing, New Luck Toy has drawn a crowd by embracing the retro nature of the vintage Chinese-American restaurant (though this is decidedly a bar first) and bucking authenticity entirely and deliberately. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s run by one of the city’s hottest chefs.
Why we love—and love to hate—this cuisine is complicated. It’s about cultural appropriation, inadvertent racism; it’s about the past and the present and why, Chan points out, we—the media, the food industry and consumers—have a tendency to applaud white chefs making Asian food, yet ignore the multitalented Asian chefs who have been doing the same thing for decades. But mostly it’s about food. If a dish is made with love and seasoned with history, does it matter what we label it?