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Albany’s Regional Chinese Story

May 3, 2019

There is a lot about the food history of the Capital Region that seems to be lost to time. Maybe that’s a poor excuse, because the reality is that I’ve never fully committed myself to doing the hard, time intensive research required to answer the questions about our unique regional foods.

You know, like how did our regional form of fish fry come to be a long narrow strip of haddock served in a hot dog bun? And more importantly, who was the genius who started putting raspberry melba sauce alongside deep fried mozzarella? Someone should get to the bottom of these culinary curiosities.

However, over the past ten years, there are changes to the regional culinary landscape I have witnessed with my own eyes. By documenting some of these on the FLB, it feels like being an observer to history in the making. Not history with a capital H. But history, nonetheless.

Yesterday, I had a marvelous lunch with Albany Jane. We went out to Fairy Sichuan and got the beef tendon chili hot pot (SH6 – 干锅牛筋) and a plate of sauteed Chinese broccoli (SV1 – 清炒唐介兰). Everything was fantastic, except for the continued weirdness of serving hot tea in plastic water cups.

She was the perfect person to help confirm the story I’ve been forming about the modern history of regional Chinese food in the area. The meal we had just enjoyed was so far superior to anything that was remotely available in the Capital Region twelve years ago. But this didn’t happen overnight.

So, how did we get here?

When the Fussies arrived to the Capital Region, the most promising Chinese restaurant was a place called Ocean Palace. Except it was also the place where I had the very worst meal of my life. We don’t need to go into those details today, but apparently I may have been there after chef Peter Chan left the building.

After Ocean Palace closed for good, Peter then went on to take over CCK on Central Avenue. And for a while this was the darling of the Capital Region food scene.

What set Ocean Palace apart from most of the other Chinese restaurants in the area was that it was Cantonese, and not simply the same old Chinese-American take out food that are as ubiquitous on the local culinary landscape as those pink and orange outposts of that national donut chain.

Hong Kong Bakery deserves a mention as one of the early players in the regional Chinese cuisine scene, as their stand alone bakery was on Central Avenue back in 2007 before moving into the Asian Supermarket. But HK Bakery really hit its stride only after opening up their own full service restaurant on Wolf Road.

And that happened after Ala Shanghai.

As far as I am concerned, Ala Shanghai really opened up the region to the diversity of Chinese cuisine. Not only was he bringing in ingredients you simply could not find anyplace else, but this menu changed with the seasons. That was unheard of in these parts for a Chinese restaurant, and it was within these walls that I tried luffa, sea cucumber, and jellyfish all for the very first time.

Amazingly, there are still people who are unaware of this remarkable restaurant on Troy Schenectady Road, just east of the traffic circle. It makes some of my favorite soup dumplings anywhere. For me, it’s all about the richness and volume of that broth.

But I digress. Ala Shanghai became extraordinarily popular. And if you want to eat there on a Friday or Saturday night, you should absolutely call for a reservation. Sure, you could order take out, but do so at your peril. Great food should be enjoyed on site, hot from the kitchen, and not subjected to the rigors of travel. Just because you are used to ordering Chinese take-out doesn’t mean that great Chinese food is meant to be shoved in boxes and eaten in your pajamas.

Others must have taken notice, because now we have a deluge of Chinese restaurants selling traditional versions of classic regional cuisines beyond just Cantonese.

The timeline isn’t as important here as the inflection point.

There’s a clear direct line between Ala Shanghai and Hu’s House, which is the other Shanghainese restaurant in the region. Taiwan Noodle is also linked to Ala Shanghai. Sure, there are some people who may argue that TN isn’t true Taiwanese food, and I’m not going to argue that point. What is clear to me is that it proved there was a hunger for Taiwanese food in the region, and now we have Lucky Corner over in Troy that serve minced pork over rice which is simple Taiwanese comfort food at its finest.

Today, we can add to this list an incredible number of Sichuan places. Fairy Sichuan on Central Avenue is the newest addition. But it joins Shu’s in Guilderland and Northeast Chinese II in the Hannaford Plaza as one of my favorite places to go for the sweat inducing cuisine of central China.

For a hot minute Tea+ in Clifton Park was making hand pulled noodles. This is significant in that Lanny from Ala Shanghai told me several years ago that he just couldn’t get a noodle chef up to the Capital Region from NYC. These skilled chefs are in high demand. And now the one we had in the area is gone. So Tea+ has reinvented itself as a Sichuan place.

Relatively recently A Bite of Xian opened up in Troy, and now we have a dedicated place serving Xi’an cuisine! While I still haven’t been myself, word on the street is that it’s getting better.

There are some other great places in the Capital Region to get Chinese food that did not make it into this brief history. Largely because they haven’t bought into the idea of committing to a cuisine, and thus are muddying the waters. It boggles my mind that Red & Blue in Troy still serves sushi. Shining Rainbow in Albany used to serve sushi as well. Both have strong Sichuan dishes on their menus, and I would love to see them commit to an identity.

But that may be too much at this point in time. There are local forces I’ve been pushing against for over a decade now, where diners demand large and diverse menus. And even places like Ala Shanghai aren’t immune to these market forces. Over the years Lanny’s menu has expanded to include Sichuan dishes as well as the more popular Chinese-American classics. And I have to say, the kitchen does them well.

Where do things go from here? I have no idea. But when it comes to Chinese food in particular, we’re on a good path. Maybe at some point there will even be a place to offer cart service for dim sum on the weekends.

Dare to dream.
Dare to dream.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. llcwine permalink
    May 3, 2019 1:29 pm

    I had wonderful food from Lucky Corner in Troy, but they too are muddying the waters, as I believe they are Taiwnese that also sell Chinese, but what they make is really really good!! The location is perfect, if not ironic, as it’s directly across the street from my Synagogue.

  2. Richard Lachmann permalink
    May 3, 2019 3:01 pm

    A Chinese restaurant on Route 9 in Clifton Park (I forget the name) had dim sum on carts 15-20 years ago. The food unfortunately was mediocre.


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