Restaurant Scene: Is Chattanooga ready for authentic Chinese food, or nah?

The red tile at Wo Hop, a restaurant in New York's Chinatown, was a kind of yellow brick road for the columnist's Chinese food passion. (Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The New York Times)

Do you know what cheung fun is without Googling it? Have you ever heard of fuqi feipian? If you haven't, it's sliced beef offals drenched in chili sauce and, hopefully, peanuts. When's the last time you had a lip-numbing bowl of mala xiao mian?

Three months after I graduated from South Brunswick High School, I moved to New York City with my Aunt Diddy, Uncle Butch and their family into a brownstone on Sugar Hill in Harlem. Every time I'd take a trip back to North Carolina, the "Chinatown bus" was my preferred mode of transportation. It was janky but far cheaper than flying out of LaGuardia, taking the Amtrak or even a ticket on a Greyhound bus.

The station was a snug graffitied storefront on Chrystie Street beside a Popeyes, the fried chicken chain. Every time I'd return from North Carolina, instead of heading straight to the train station on the corner of Delancey and Essex streets to head back to Harlem, I'd purposely get lost in the chaotic labyrinth of Chinatown.

I drank Hu Gu Jiu Tiger Bone wine. I tapped on the glass tanks full of Dungeness crabs awaiting their fate. I was mesmerized by the Peking ducks, hanging limp and glistening in the window of Yee Li, and I ate that duck sliced in between squishy bao buns with my cousin, Christopher, from Yonkers. I dipped below, into the bowels of Mott Street, where Wo Hop's red tile hallway was my version of Dorothy's yellow brick road.

Wo Hop, which is one of my all-time favorite restaurants, was the first place I ate shrimp chow mai fun and learned that oyster sauce is the unsung hero of egg foo young gravy. All of that being said, I'm not well acquainted with unfiltered, unabashed, unapologetic, unsanitized Chinese culture — especially as it pertains to food.

None of that means I don't love and often consume Americanized Chinese cuisine. Even though I think there aren't many things more vile than imitation crab meat, it never stops me from ordering the crab rangoon. I love how the red food coloring from the boneless spare ribs stains my fingertips. While most consider it merely a condiment, I exalt hot mustard as a nectar of the gods.

My kitchen cabinets are always crammed with more packets of duck sauce than I'll ever need. I always say yes to the lady in the mall food court offering samples of bourbon chicken on toothpicks. I get giddy when there's mung bean sprouts in the house fried rice. I get agitated when the weight from the takeout container of moo goo gai pan crushes the fortune cookies. Even still, I read the fortunes, and I keep the fortunes if they sound fortunate enough.

Chattanooga has its share of Americanized Chinese restaurants. There's Formosa on Highway 153 in Hixson, China Cafeteria, Shangri-la, Hunan Wok 1, Mister Wok, Imperial Garden and at least half a dozen restaurants that I can name off the top of my head.

Still, I hear from Chattanoogans who say the city's Chinese food is missing something — and what they are describing seems to be "authentic" Chinese food.

So, I ask: Is Chattanooga ready for authentic Chinese food, or nah?

Has Chattanooga's appetite for Chinese food matured from goopy (but good) kung pao chicken to laziji, from plastic sporks to strictly chopsticks? For Chattanoogans who only think of Mandarin as a type of orange, will they be intimidated if the menu said 長沙臭豆腐 instead of Changsha stinky tofu?

Will the vibes get awkward if the waitress who's "fresh off the boat" doesn't speak a lick of English and, therefore, won't be able to tell you how "stinky" the tofu is? What if the chef hails from Shaanxi, a region in Northwest China known for being the genesis of the Silk Road and a cuisine famous for being partial to mutton, extra thick noodles and hardly any sugar, a far cry from the riff of Cantonese style cookery we're familiar with in America? What if the chef has no regard for how wimpy your palette may be and has no intentions of compromising the integrity of their dishes, no matter if you like biangbang or not.

Yu Liang, president of the Chattanooga Chinese Association, is optimistic. Liang, who grew up on the Vietnamese border, spent time in the United Kingdom before making Chattanooga his home a decade ago. An authentic Chinese restaurant would work in Chattanooga, he said.

"There would be no competition if one does open up here," he said.

Right now, Chattanooga's Asian population is around 2.9%. If a restaurant of that kind were to exist, that statistic would need to be exponentially higher.

"I feel like the industries, companies and businesses are booming, and it will attract more Chinese people to settle down in Chattanooga," Liang said. "I'm very confident about that. Chattanooga has a very bright future. That's why we settled down here."

Even though there are a handful of Asian markets scattered around, Liang and other Chinese living in the area are forced to make the trek to Atlanta, Buford Highway in particular, when they are craving choy sum or jellyfish salad. Atlanta's Chinese population is robust enough to facilitate those types of offerings. When he does patronize Americanized Chinese restaurants in the Chattanooga area, he orders from a separate menu than those of us who aren't fluent in Chinese, Liang said.

Then there's Willy. His family owns and operates Hunan Wok 1 on East 23rd Street, which he tells his 44,700 followers on TikTok is the "cleanest Chinese takeout east of Ohio."

Willy's optimism about the prospect of authentic Chinese food in Chattanooga isn't on the level of Liang's, but there are glimmers. Willy believes average Chattanoogans will be extremely skeptical of fuqi fiepian and the other dishes I mentioned in the first paragraph, but he does hope something comes to fruition, he said.

"It's just my opinion. I would like to see more of the traditional stuff here," Willy said. "We even have some clients that come in here wanting the traditional Chinese food, but I always tell them, 'Nah, you're in a small town. There's no traditional Chinese food here.'

"I think it could happen if you feed people the real stuff little by little," Willy said during in-person and phone conversations.

Whenever I asked him if he would ever branch out from Hunan Wok 1 and open an authentic Chinese restaurant, he quickly dismissed the idea. Willy did, however, mention something very profound.

"I can remember when boba tea wasn't as popular," he said. "People thought it was weird. Now it's everywhere."

Maybe Willy is right. Maybe dishes like xiaolongbao will blow up and become as mainstream as boba tea is. Maybe that golden lucky waving cat sitting on the counter of our favorite Chinese takeout spot has us in a trance we can't snap out of. In my humble opinion, I think a legit dim sum parlor with mugs runneth over with Yanjing and bamboo steam baskets full of shumai would drastically increase Chattanooga's overall quality of living, but until then, we'll have to make that trek to Atlanta.

Contact Andre James at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Sign up for his weekly newsletter, "What to Eat Next," at

  photo  Andre James