Fueled by the arrival of international students from China, the Chinese culinary scene in the college town of Davis is experiencing a renaissance as once-common fare like orange chicken is replaced by spicy boiling fish, sauteed pork kidney and hearty hot pot.
At Hunan Bar and Restaurant on G Street, new owner Mike Yang has crafted a separate menu for these students, featuring favorites including beef noodle soup and pork ear smothered in hot sauce. He has plastered big red Chinese characters on the window that proclaim “authentic Hunan and Sichuan food,” both of which are famously spicy.
Nearly 2,000 undergraduates from mainland China attended UC Davis in 2015, up from 68 in 2009
Yang, 62, a Sacramento resident and owner of JoJo Massage, bought out the 27-year-old restaurant in April to capitalize on the growing Chinese student population in Davis. The previous owner focused on Americanized Chinese selections like sweet General Tso’s chicken or fried cream cheese wontons.
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The dramatic change on the menu has elicited a tremendous response with students thronging the restaurant at lunch and dinner.
“Word of mouth,” Yang said with a smile, adding that diners come from as far as Roseville and Folsom.
Passing on essentially American creations as Chinese is no longer realistic since enrollment for Chinese international students at UC Davis has soared. Nearly 2,000 undergraduates from mainland China attended the campus in 2015, up from a mere 68 in 2009, according to university officials.
Chinese taste buds can be picky. Since many have not had exposure to foreign cuisines back home, Mexican burritos or even American hamburgers can be anathema.
It’s really hard to do business now. There’s too much competition.
Tony Liu, owner of the Davis Taiwanese drink franchise Gong Cha. There are at least 11 stores in town that sell pearl milk tea.
“We won’t eat anything other than Chinese or Japanese food,” said Maggie Mai, an 18-year-old freshman from landlocked Jiangxi province, who was feasting on tan tan noodles and kung pao chicken at Hunan.
“Everything else is garbage,” added her friend, Sam Lai, 19, a native of the bustling city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
Yang employs two sets of kitchen staff so there is no “cross-contamination” between Chinese and Americanized dishes. Just two of the 15 chefs who prepared test meals featuring the spicy foods of Sichuan and Hunan provinces made the cut after several rounds of tastings by UC Davis students.
Still, Yang has maintained the venerable “Happy Luncheon” menu for American palates with heaps of fried rice, chow mein, a wok-fried dish and a fortune cookie for good measure. But the kung pao chicken on the American menu is prepared differently from the dish that bears the same name on the Chinese menu.
“It doesn’t have any sugar and has lots of chili peppers,” Yang said of the dish for Chinese customers.
The prices on the Chinese menu are about 50 percent higher, owing to the intense preparation needed for certain foods, the owner said. But the Chinese students, many of them living in the United States for the first time, have no qualms about paying top dollar for comfort food that reminds them of home. Most come from well-heeled families and pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for an education at UC Davis.
“They don’t think of it as a restaurant. They think of it as home,” Yang said.
The arrival of Chinese students has also meant the opening of grocery stores and cafes catering to the Asian market. But the market for pearl milk tea drinks in Davis has reached saturation as Asian dessert shops sprout up across town, said Tony Liu, owner of the local Taiwanese drink franchise Gong Cha. There are at least 11 stores in town that sell pearl milk tea, first popularized in Taiwan during the 1980s.
“We saw that Gong Cha was popular in the Bay Area, so we wanted to give it a try here,” Liu said. “It’s really hard to do business now. There’s too much competition.”
Restaurateurs have clearly responded to a long-held desire by Chinese people to always eat their own cuisine.
“No matter where they are, they keep their Chinese stomach,” said Michelle Yeh, a professor of Chinese and director of the Confucius Institute at UC Davis.
Yeh, a native of Taiwan and 20-year Davis resident, came to the United States in the 1970s to study at the University of Southern California. At the time, she had to settle for American concoctions like chop suey to satiate her cravings for a taste of home.
“I was surprised,” said Yeh, 61. “I found it amusing. You had this ‘Chinese’ dish that I’ve never heard of.”
Hometown Chinese Restaurant was one of the first in Davis to feature authentic-style meals such as fried pork chop rice. Hometown started as a humble hole-in-the-wall inside the Chevron gas station on Research Park Drive. Its present location, on the second floor of an E Street complex, has become a virtual “cafeteria” for Chinese students with lines out the door, Yeh said.
“They are here all the time. It’s so crowded,” she said.
As for why Chinese students frequent restaurants instead of cooking at home, Kevin Wang provided a cultural explanation. The students, he said, grow up sharing an assortment of dishes with friends and family, which is possible only when they dine together.
“Americans like to eat their own dish. We like to share,” said Wang, a 21-year-old managerial economics major from Xiamen, a port city in southeastern Fujian province.