When walking the streets of Hoboken, among the trendy fast-casual eateries popping up around town, you’ll notice several old, no-frills Chinese takeout restaurants. Many of them have been around for more than 20 years and are still busy filling delivery or pick-up orders from locals in the neighborhood every day. If you ask an owner of one of these restaurants what the most popular menu item is, the answer is always “General Tso’s chicken” — an “American” favorite.
General Tso’s chicken has become synonymous with Chinese takeout, but it’s largely an American invention and is not frequently ordered by native Chinese customers, especially the younger ones, according to one of those aforementioned owners. We did a little digging into the history of American Chinese food. It’s a story of immigration, politics, and cultural integration that is still unfolding today. Here’s a brief history of Chinese takeout in town and our top must-order-from spots. Read on for a guide to Chinese takeout in Hoboken + Jersey City and a brief history of the cuisine.
A Brief History
The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to America during the California Gold Rush. The majority of them were impoverished peasants from the Cantonese area on China’s south coast. Many of them ended up in the restaurant business, selling dishes loosely based on traditional Cantonese recipes, but adapted to the tastes of American customers, such as lo mein and egg rolls. The most typical American-Chinese food from that era was chop suey, made of meat and eggs, stir-fried with vegetables, served over rice, and is based on a Cantonese peasant dish made with miscellaneous leftovers. In the 1920s, New York foodies and bohemians started a “chop suey craze” and Chinese food was considered the most exciting ethnic food at that time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, two historical events marked another wave of change in American Chinese food. With the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965 — which repealed restrictions on East Asian immigrants — an influx of Chinese immigrants arrived in America, many of whom came from regions in China other than Guangdong, bringing their hometown flavors to their adopted country. During President Nixon’s “ice-breaking” visit to China in 1972, the state banquet was broadcast live globally, which immediately kindled the public’s curiosity for “authentic” Chinese food.
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It was during this time that General Tso’s chicken came to the food scene. A Taiwanese chef originally from Hunan Province invented the dish in the 1950s, naming it after his hometown hero Zuo Zongtang, a 19th-century general. The dish made its way to New York in the 1970s, just in time for the rekindled Chinese food fervor. Chefs at prominent Chinese restaurants added their own spins to the “original” Taiwanese recipe, crisping the batter and intensifying the flavor, making it more palatable to American tastes. From there, the dish took off.
Chinese Takeout Locally
Today, the food at our typical neighborhood Chinese takeout still echoes the legacy from that era. Yes, stir-fries and fried rice are eaten in China, but the American takeout renderings are sweeter, saltier, boneless, and heavily deep-fried, for example, think of sesame chicken. And many common Chinese-takeout ingredients are not widely consumed in China. Broccoli, for dishes like broccoli with beef, is not native to Asia and only started to appear in Chinese farmers’ markets after the 2000s. Fortune cookies, a Californian invention, are pretty much unheard of in China.
This does not mean Chinese natives have completely renounced Chinese takeout food altogether. On busy weekday nights, at many Hoboken Chinese takeout spots, there is always a small but steady stream of Chinese students from Stevens. “The food is nothing fancy, but sometimes it suffices for a quick and inexpensive dinner, especially when you are starving,” they told The Hoboken Girl.
And the Chinese proprietors of these restaurants have also made changes to meet the evolving market demand. They enlarged and renovated the space and expanded the menu to incorporate Japanese or Thai dishes as well, catering to the taste of a wider clientele. But more changes are still on the way. In the past 10 years, an increasing number of Chinese investors, students, and high-skilled workers have moved to America. With disposable incomes and picky palates, they tend to seek out authentic dining experiences closer to what they had at home. As a result, new restaurants have opened up around town featuring a wide variety of regional cuisines, previously uncommon in America.
Where to Get Chinese Takeout
Chen’s Kitchen | 301 Jackson Street #2
Must-try Dish: General Tso’s chicken
Green Garden | 1202 Washington Street
Must-try Dish: Wonton soup
Keming | 1006 Washington Street
Must-try Dish: Dim sum
Low-Fatt-Chow | 720 Monroe Street, Suite 103
Must-try Dish: Sweet and sour chicken
Number 1 | 642 Washington Street
Must-try Dish: Chicken and broccoli
Precious Chinese + Japanese Cuisine | 128 Washington Street
Must-try Dish: Sichuan pork
Rice Shop | 304 Washington Street #4842
Must-try Dish: Peking duck
Chef Tan | 558 Washington Boulevard
Must-try Dish: Chongqing-style fried chicken
China Garden | 553 West Side Avenue
Must-try Dish: Kung Pao Chicken
East Flour | 103 Christopher Columbus Drive
(Photo credit: @eastflour)
Must-try Dish: Wonton and purple rice congee
Garden State Chinese Restaurant | 287 Central Avenue
Must-try Dish: Spring rolls
Great Wall | 426 Grand Street
Must-try Dish: Orange chicken
Hunan House | 382 Summit Avenue
Must-try Dish: Miso soup
Jade House | 586 West Side Avenue
Must-try Dish: Beef Chao
Kay’s Spring Garden | 473 Central Avenue
Must-try Dish: Fried wontons
New Hong Kong | 161 Monticello Avenue
Must-try Dish: Black pepper beef
Old Peking | 746 Montgomery Street
Must-try Dish: Noodles with shrimp
Taste of North China | 75 Montgomery Street
Must-try Dish: Honey garlic chicken