He doesn’t use chopsticks, he doesn’t like eggrolls, and his wife thinks the whole idea is “silly,” but third-generation Chinese American David R. Chan has made a point of eating at almost 6,300 Chinese restaurants across the country over the course of 33 years.
It all started in 1969, when Chan, a CPA and lawyer who’s now 64, took an Asian studies course at UCLA that inspired him to better connect with his culture. And he’ll quickly point out that his quest is not about the food, although of course by now he has some fairly strong opinions on where to go.
“Despite the fact I’ve been to 6,000 Chinese restaurants, I don’t consider myself a foodie,” he said. “My kids are foodies and think it is great, and their friends are foodies, and they are all into this. My wife thinks it is silly.”
”It is not like one day I sat down and decided that I wanted to go to all the Chinese restaurants I can,” he said. “It had nothing to do with food in the beginning, but about an Asian American studies course I took at the time called ‘Orientals in America.’
“When I started traveling myself, I decided it would be neat to see what the cuisine would be like in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was at the time. I thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like to be Chinese in Memphis, so I started eating out and got exposed to new types of food.”
As far as not using chopsticks, Chan said, “I can’t use chopsticks for the same reason I can’t write very well. I never learned how to hold a pencil correctly, and in fact writing hurts me because I don’t know how to hold the pencil the right way, and when I was in the first grade the teacher spotted it and I was unable to correct it. Now, because of that I don’t have the muscles in the fingers to use the chopsticks.”
Since the early 1980s, Chan said he has recorded all restaurants he has eaten at on a spreadsheet organized by name, street and year visited. He’s also kept the thousands of business cards, menus and credit card receipts from the restaurants.
Then he got his first home computer with a database program. ”I went back and tried to recreate where I had been,” said Chan. “I went through the credit cards slips, business cards, went to the public library and phone books to see where I had been and started filling it out thoroughly.”
As “a CPA and an attorney, it seemed like the natural thing to do,” he said.
Chan said he has seen the evolution of Chinese restaurants throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, which began opening in 1970 and in the mid 1980s “started to explode.”
”At this point there are about 600 restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley,” he said.
Having traveled all around the country, Chan said Vancouver and Toronto are “a step ahead of Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
“I have been all over the country and clearly L.A. is almost the best, along with San Francisco in the U.S.,” he said. “Then maybe New York, but New York does not have really good Chinese food.”
As for his all-time favorite dish, Chan said it is hard to say because there are so many dishes done well. However, he did say he had a “fabulous version of lemon chicken.”
”The way they cooked it and the combo of meat, batter and sauce, it was delicious and the best I have had,” he said. “If I go to a new place, I also always check to see if they have fish dumplings. If they do, I always order them.”
Chan said he will continue to eat at new Chinese restaurants and document his ventures as long as he can.
”I will continue as long as possible and I am probably slowing a little bit,” he said. “However, anytime I read about a new place opening in San Gabriel Valley, I tell myself I got to get out there and try some new food.”