Alan Yang of 'Master of None' Takes On the East Coast vs. West Coast Chinese Food Debate
He also knows where to get the best ma po tofu in Manhattan and the best soup dumplings in Shanghai. Duh.
All photos courtesy of Alan Yang
If you've seen Master of None, the show Alan Yang created with his writing partner Aziz Ansari, his passion for food won't surprise you. One could argue that the New York City restaurant and bar cameos on the show—from Mission Chinese Food to Morgenstern's Ice Cream to Dirty French—entice viewers as much as the celebrity guest appearances.
We sat down with Yang in New York right after he had just returned from a culinary tour around Asia to hear about how he spent the trip getting in touch with his Taiwanese roots. During Yang's Asia-spanning trip—which included, as you'd expect, lots of eating—he managed to meet up with relatives in most of the countries he visited, getting together with his parents, his sister, and even his grandmother to explore Asia's gastronomic hotspots: Taiwan, Thailand, and Japan.
Yang is serious about food, and shared such delicious tidbits with us as his favorite spots at home and abroad; where to get the best soup dumpling in Shanghai; the great East Coast versus West Coast Chinese food debate; how he and his team choose which restaurants to feature in Master of None; and, of course, what we can expect food-wise on the show's upcoming second season.
Fair warning: You'll probably want some bomb takeout before you read this, so order now.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Alan. What prompted your trip to Taiwan?
Alan Yang: My parents are both immigrants from Taiwan, and for most of my life I've been a very bad Taiwanese person. My mom sent me to Chinese school, and I went once and then quit and told her I would never go back. I'm not really fluent in Mandarin or Taiwanese and I can only vaguely understand when my parents speak to me in those languages. I had not been back to Taiwan since I was seven, which is a long time ago. Right after we wrapped season two of Master of None, DreamWorks had this idea of putting me in this brain-trust type thing and sent me to Shanghai. I thought maybe I'd make a trip of it because I had a couple weeks free, so I texted my dad and asked if he wanted to join.
What was it like being there with him?
It was incredible. We went to a lot of the night markets. We took the train down to his hometown and walked around. He showed me the mausoleum where my grandparents are buried. And then I made him go on a street food tour of Taipei.
Does he appreciate food in the way you do?
He loves food, but he's not as much of an epicure as me. He's doing a lot more cooking at home. But it was really incredible. And the trip kept going. I ended up meeting up with my mom and her husband in Thailand and we went all around the country. And then my sister and her family happened to be in Japan, so I met up with them, and then my grandma met up with us in Osaka, and then I came back and finished editing the show.
"Sometimes my mom would cook me spaghetti, but I would always be like, 'I don't want to eat these beautifully composed Chinese dishes that are also clean and healthy.' I just didn't appreciate it then."
Did that trip have any unexpected impact on the way that you view yourself?
It helped a lot with this movie I'm writing right now! Selfishly, I was like, "Thanks, Dad! You really helped me write the beginning and end of this movie!" But seriously, it was incredible, man, seeing all of my family members in this context that I hadn't seen before. I hadn't seen where my dad grew up before.
In the same way that you can only really experience going to the night market by being there, there's no simulation or American version because the American version is the American version. And that's great, too! I'll go to Din Tai Fung in Glendale and it's great, but it's not the same as having soup dumplings in Shanghai or going to the Din Tai Fung in Taipei or going to a local spot. Going to eat in the San Gabriel Valley like we did growing up is its own thing, but it's not the same as eating a bao in my dad's hometown. It's just not the same thing.
Do you have any meals you want to share that stood out?
Yeah! I had a great Chinese meal in the Chinatown in Bangkok. We ate suckling pig at Tang Jai Yoo. I went on a crazy food journey in Chiang Mai looking for the best khao soi. I went to four khao soi places, but in the end, I actually felt like the khao soi at Uncle Boons is pretty good! I've had it at Pok Pok and other places here, and I was actually impressed by how good it is in the States. It isn't exactly the same, but it tastes like they're using fancier ingredients here and doing the best they can.
Whenever I'm in Shanghai, I always go to this soup dumpling place Jia Jia Tang Bao and then the sheng jian bao place Da Hu Chun right across the street. I hadn't been to Taipei since I was a child, and there were these black pepper buns at the Raohe Night Market that were amazing. And like I said, I did the street food tour, and stuff as simple as the guo bao at this local place Songshan Gua Bao and the pork noodle rice was really, really good. Oh man, and then there's the Taiwanese breakfast. My dad and I ended up going to the same breakfast spot Yong He Dou Jiang Da Wang a few times and ordered, like, ten things.
I don't want to use the word "foodie," but has food always been this important to you?
In retrospect, it really has. I didn't appreciate this growing up, but for dinner, my mom would cook two or three entrees, two or three different vegetables and rice. When you're a kid, you want to fit in and eat spaghetti. And sometimes my mom would cook me spaghetti, but I would always be like, "I don't want to eat these beautifully composed Chinese dishes that are also clean and healthy." I just didn't appreciate it then. Even if she made me a sandwich for my school lunch, she would always use the best ingredients, and I think my love of food really stems from that. It's also cultural. Taiwan in general is an epicurean society, and to this day, there is a strong food culture there which carries on in my family.
Did you find that food helped shape your identity?
I think I was the only Asian kid in my elementary school for a little bit. I grew up in Riverside, California. I have to give credit to the kids at Gage Middle School and Riverside Poly High School, because I don't feel like I got much shit for the lunches I was bringing. If anything, they were jealous. It looked better than their PB&Js. There are a lot of Asian people in Southern California, but there weren't a lot in Riverside in the 90s. My sister did tell me a story that I'll never forget: She was in line to get milk and some kid was saying to the kids in line: "You're a white kid, you get white milk. You're a black kid, you get chocolate milk." And when it was her turn, he said, "Oh, a yellow kid. There ain't no yellow milk here, man!" It wasn't like a scarring memory, just a funny thing she told me.
So what does that mean for your early food memories?
Mexican food, man! I like to play this game with my friends and ask what are your desert island five cuisines? Pick five countries. For me, it's Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, and American. I take American—it's kind of a cheat.
What do you mean by "American?"
Everything! You get a lot with American, but where I grew up comes in is the Mexican part. There may be no food I crave more. I talk to Aziz and his brother about this a lot. For him, it's Southern food—barbecue, and mac and cheese—and for me, it's enchiladas and burritos. I was born in San Bernardino, and that's where McDonald's started. There's this street there called Hospitality Lane, and it was the UN of chain restaurants: Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Applebee's, Chili's, BJ's Brewhouse, Outback. You knew a chain restaurant started blowing up if it appeared on Hospitality Lane.
It seems like incorporating food into the culture zeitgeist is something everyone is into right now.
This was an actual issue of season one for Master of None. We try and put real stuff from our lives into the show, and that's why it hopefully feels kind of real—because it actually is. So when we're writing a scene and thinking about where it takes place or it's a bonding scene between a guy and a girl or whatever, our fallback is always food, because that we're always talking about with friends. We had to create a rule in the writers' room: Is there too much food stuff in this episode? At a certain point, we were like, "OK, we've got to go through all of these scripts and make sure it's not every scene." At one point, it really was in every scene.
"Don't go to Taye Diggs' place expecting a Benihana, because you'll be disappointed. You might just find a nice backyard. It is Tyrese's private Benihana, and it is the best."
Is food something that you and Aziz bonded over early on in your friendship?
We did. We both started off on the first season of Parks and Recreation in our mid-twenties and really hit it off, so we'd go out to eat. And we would both make friends with people in food like Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo, of Animal]. And then it got to the point where we did a pilot with our friends Eric Wareheim and Jason Woliner called Food Club. We would go to restaurants. It's so dumb. So yeah, it's been going on for years. It's gotten to an unlikeable point, where we're now eating at places that are pretty obnoxious.
Like Taye Diggs' private Benihana?
That's Tyrese's place! Don't screw it up. Don't go to Taye Diggs' place expecting a Benihana, because you'll be disappointed. You might just find a nice backyard. It is Tyrese's private Benihana, and it is the best.
I heard you recently went through something of a mapo tofu obsession?
Oh yeah. I have this text thread here that's very obsessed with food, and it has some Asian people on it. My friend Amanda is especially obsessed with mapo tofu. A bunch of our friends surprised her and showed up to her house and had Postmated mapo tofu from like five different places. Legit, like Mission Chinese, Han Dynasty, Szechuan Gourmet. It was out of control. I wish I had been there that night.
Did she pick a winner?
I think her favorite was Szechuan Gourmet, which is a great place.
So many people compare East Coast Chinese food to that of the West Coast. What's your perspective as a West Coast transplant in New York?
Here's my thing: Why doesn't LA have more and better Chinese food options outside of the San Gabriel Valley? I will grant you that the San Gabriel Valley is unbelievable. I know David Chang and I try to eat there with him whenever we're in LA, and he is always blown away. It's crazy: the variety, the nuance, and the quality of what you can get there. Here in New York, we have great Sichuan, and I love that I can walk to get it or have it delivered. But it's sheer numbers. Some of these towns in LA are, like, 80 percent Chinese. It's nuts. California secretly supplies America with almost all of its produce, and it also makes all the movies and it also has Silicon Valley. That said, I've been pleasantly surprised with New York Chinese food. It's just different than what I grew up on. And I've barely scratched the surface.
Thanks for talking with us.