He keeps tabs on America’s Chinese food

David Chan, left, knows Chinese food well, having documented eating in nearly 6,300 Chinese food restaurants. But he's never learned to use chopsticks. Above, he dines at Shawn Cafe in Arcadia. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times / January 18, 2013)

The television cameras roll as Los Angeles attorney David Chan places the first forkful of cashew chicken in his mouth.

The crowd at Leong's Asian Diner in Springfield, Mo., falls silent as he chews and squints in the glare of the lights.

Springfield Cashew Chicken — a deep-fried, gravy-drenched version of the popular buffet item — is a local specialty and David Leong, the dish's 92-year-old inventor, was watching expectantly from across the table.

Chan kept chewing. The silence grew uncomfortable.

"How does it taste?" a reporter asked at last.

Chan didn't answer. The chicken was overcooked.

Finally, he spoke: "It's good," Chan mumbled diplomatically, and quickly grabbed seconds.

Chan, 64, has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants (at press time) and he has documented the experiences on an Excel spreadsheet, a data-centric diary of a gastronomic journey that spans the United States and beyond.

A lawyer and accountant by trade, the slim, bespectacled man can debate Toronto's dim sum and rate Chinese buffets in Nashville. Name any neighborhood in Los Angeles and Chan — with a few thoughtful blinks — will produce the name of a Chinese restaurant within a few miles.

His expertise has brought him renown. Restaurant critics regularly ask him on Twitter for advice on where to eat. Food websites have sought him out to write about Chinese cuisine and its history. In Springfield, his lunch made the local news broadcasts — at 6, 9, and 10 p.m.

Scrolling to the top of his spreadsheet takes you to 1955 and a different era in Los Angeles. The only Chinese food was in Chinatown, and food was his sole connection to his culture.

#2, 1955, soy sauce over white rice at Lime House, 708 New High St. A green-painted concrete square with crisscrossing telephone wires overhead.


As a child, Chan hated Chinese food. The few times his parents would drag him to Chinatown restaurants like Lime House for banquets, he'd sulk over a bowl of plain rice. Home-cooked dinners were American standbys like meatloaf and spaghetti.

If Chan didn't feel Chinese, it was partly by design.

"I think my parents wanted to protect me," Chan said. "I was pretty much raised as an American."

Immigration quotas then allowed just 105 Chinese into the country each year, and only 8,067 Chinese lived in Los Angeles in 1950 — less than half a percent of L.A.'s population at the time, according to census records.

"Unless you lived in San Francisco, you were an oddity," said Chan, a third-generation Asian American.

His father graduated from UCLA at the top of his accounting class, but the job offers from top firms never came. They lived in a neighborhood that real estate agents had counseled them was "accepting of Chinese," and his parents never sent him to Chinese school because they were afraid his English would suffer.

But Chinese food was always there, marking birthdays, weddings and graduations. While studying accounting and tax law at UCLA, Chan frequented a restaurant in a high-rise called Ah Fong's Westwood. It was the only Chinese restaurant in the area that he could recall.