Why Are There No Chinese Restaurants in Columbus?

A question posed to WOSU’s “Curious Cbus” led me back to a pet peeve of mine

Truth be told, the title of this blog post was not the question actually asked. But it sure did inspire the title, and gave me cause for some reflection.

The question, as posed in the “Curious Cbus” segment of WOSU News, was why did Columbus, unlike other cities, not have a Chinatown? My initial instincts proved correct when I read the response, which lies in the real estate adage “location, location, location.” Early Chinese immigrants who traveled to this country tended to settle in port cities like San Francisco and New York; meanwhile, land-locked cities like Columbus were harder for immigrants in general to get to.

Anti-immigration laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act stalled out significant growth for Chinese populations in this country for over sixty years; those that remained in the country would travel elsewhere for work. However, Columbus did not see any substantial growth in their Chinese and other Asian populations until the mid-1960s, especially when the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 eliminated the national origins quota system that had been in place prior.

Interestingly enough, if you followed the “Best Of” polls of a certain local magazine, you might wonder if there were actually no Chinese restaurants in this town of nearly over 900,000 people now.

Nothing like a tasty Chow Fun once in awhile, such as this version from Lieu’s Asian Cuisine

Before I dive into that, I’d like to touch on the complicated relationship I’ve had with Chinese food in this country. Growing up in California for much of my younger life, I didn’t have knowledge that things like General Tso’s Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork were essentially examples of one of this country’s first fusion foods (Chinese-style preparations that had been catered to American tastes.) Nor did I know why there were so many Chinese restaurants (it was one of the few allowable enterprises Chinese immigrants were allowed to own and operate, along with laundry businesses, due to rampant discrimination.)

I ate away at what my parents and grandparents would bring home because, well, I thought it tasted good. And yes, I ate a lot of it.

Later in life, when I began to really go into a more exploratory mode, I swung totally in the opposite direction. Learning of that history and that there were restaurants that served genuine what-you-would-find-in-China fare, I pretty much stopped going to Chinese-American places altogether and tried to seek out those dishes exclusively. In some ways, my attitude towards what I liked in childhood bordered on snobbery.

Currently, I have a more nuanced view on things. As detailed in this Refinery 29 article, the world of Asian-American food is as complicated an entity as there is right now. Like Chinese-American food, what people think as “genuine” food is actually a mish-mash of different cultures (Hawaiian and Filipino cuisines, for example.) Additionally, Asian cuisines have been part of the mix of newly formed and popular culinary mashups (e.g. Roy Choi’s Korean-Mexican creations from his Kogi BBQ food trucks.)

Further mucking up this stew are prominent non-Asian members of the culinary world who borrow Asian cuisines and claim authenticity (and often receive a ton of credit for it, deservedly or not) or make broad statements on certain Asian cuisines (such as Arielle Haspel and Andrew Zimmern, who decried Chinese-American creations in various ways.)

My thoughts have evolved more to the chefs whose interests lie less in authenticity but more in combining cuisine and culture into what they consider delicious. While I’m still more into exploring Chinese restaurants with authentic-from-China dishes these days, I’ve stopped avoiding the Chinese-American dishes that I grew up with and remember fondly. If I get a hankering for Mongolian Beef or Orange Chicken, darn it, I’m going to satiate it.

One of the delicious preparations from Lotus Grill in the Crosswoods area of town

With that out of the way, let me get back Columbus and their lack of Chinese restaurants.

In reality, there are PLENTY of Chinese restaurants in the Columbus, Ohio metro. When you look at Yelp.com, your initial search pulls in triple digits in terms of numbers. To have a little fun with what came up, I have created my own categories to categorize them (and also note, these were NOT all of the Yelp.com entries for Chinese restaurants in Columbus either.)

  • The Regionally-/Place-Named Oriented (NE Chinese Restaurant, Xi Xia Western, Hunan Lion, Hunan King, Hunan House, Peking Wok, Peking Dynasty, Silk Road Asian)
  • The Owner Name oriented (Helen Asian Kitchen, Tai’s Asian Bistro, Joy’s Village, Yau’s Chinese Bistro, Moy’s Restaurant, Lieu’s Asian Cuisine, Ying’s Teahouse, Z. Chen Asian)
  • The Food-Dish oriented (Chilispot, Chinese Beef Noodle Soup, Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle, Mala Hotpot, Red Chili, Kirin Noodle)
  • The Mythical Animal-Oriented (Little Dragons, Lucky Dragon, Golden Phoenix)
  • The House-Oriented (Golden House, Happy House, China House)
  • The Wok-Oriented (China Wok, Peking Wok, Panda Wok, Asian Wok)
  • The Express-Oriented (Peking Dynasty Express, Nong’s Hunan Express, Chinese Express)
  • The Everything-Else-I-Found (Jiu Thai, Yin Yue, Poong Mei, Ko Sheng, Sun Tong Luck, Tiger + Lily, CoCo’s Grill, Lightbulb Asian Cafe, H.Y. Asian Cuisine, Asian Kitchen, Taste of Orient, Family Garden, Sunflower, China Bell, Fortune City, Lotus Grill)

The sheer number should not be a surprise: when I moved to Columbus, the population of the city itself was over 820,000, with the metro area close to nearly 2 million people, and it has only grown since. While Ohio in general has always had the reputation of being “America’s Test Market” in relation to fast food concepts, a discerning diner could find restaurants with dishes from many parts of the world (including African countries, a category that we’ve finally started to explore more), if one looked hard enough.

Look hard enough too, and you’ll find a myriad of “Best Of” lists for any particular city or region in the media. These lists are generated generally by two main groups: the folks who work at the media source or people encouraged to respond with their own favorites to that source’s polling. Since these are hardly scientific affairs, the final results of these tallies should be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, these “Best Of” lists proved helpful in giving me some target destinations to see how readers’ opinions compared to mine. I soon learned that, like other polls, some choices proved more legitimate than others, at least based on my own experiences. But there was one particular poll with a category which always puzzled me.

(614) Magazine’s Latest “Best Asian Restaurant” Winner

So for an area with such a large population like Columbus, why would you have such a generic category like “Best Asian Restaurant” (as has been the case with the (614) Magazine Columbest poll) for as long as I can remember?

I breached on this topic on my previous blog before in 2019, when I noted both the category and the winner at the time (P.F. Chang’s, the national chain founded by Phillip Chiang.) It turns out that as time has gone on that I’m not surprised as much by the choice but rather the continuance of the “Best Asian Restaurant” category altogether.

A review of this year’s Columbest categories show the same mish-mash as previous years: specific cuisines such as Cajun, Greek, Indian, Italian, Mexican, and Middle East/Mediterranean are indicated. Japanese is semi-specifically mentioned in the “Best Sushi” category.

However, “Best Asian Cuisines” still covers everything else Asian, including the well over 100 restaurants that serve Chinese or Chinese-American dishes exclusively as part of their menu. Add in the Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, and Nepali/Tibetan restaurants which dot the metro, and you’re looking at closer to 150 qualifying restaurants in this category in the end by my rough estimates.

To contrast this, categories such as Cajun, Greek (which gets an additional “Best Gyro” category) and even Italian (which gets two additional categories with Traditional and Gourmet Pizza) don’t come close to matching those numbers.

For certain, I’m not saying that the latter three categories should be eliminated from this particular poll; rather, the numbers suggest Chinese deserves its own category all by its lonesome. Although this is clumsily named, a “Best Non-Chinese Asian” could and should be its own category too.

Lest you think this might be too broad, it indeed might be – both their counterparts at Columbus Monthly Magazine and Columbus Alive sport separate “Best Of” categories for Chinese, as well as Himalayan/Nepalese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese.

Besides my general bafflement at such a generic, all-encompassing category, another reason for rehashing this topic again lies in the current pandemic world we live in. Chinese restaurants and businesses have suffered greatly during these times more than most, led at least partially by anti-Chinese sentiments. Ironically, much of this food, as mentioned before, originated in large part with anti-Chinese policies and attitudes back in the 1800s.

And while adding a “Best Chinese Restaurant” category in a local media source won’t really help cure long-baked racism in this country, nor will it mean that P.F. Chang’s won’t earn another accolade in a future poll, it is designation that Columbus should have, especially considering its neighboring cities.

Best Chinese Restaurant in Cincinnati? You bet!

Best in Cleveland? Of course!

Dayton? Sure thing!

Akron? That’s a 10-4

Toledo? Well, they have a “Best Asian Restaurant” category too. Maybe the Arch City is striving to be the Glass City, at least in this case.

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