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Why must all Chinese restaurants be the same?


pennbrew
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OK, I'll admit that where I live (just south of Wilkes-Barre PA) is not a foodie hotbed.

A brand-new Chinese restaurant just opened at the end of my street. Actually it was previously a Chinese restaurant (Peking Chef), but it's under new ownership and has undergone a complete makeover. We have another Chinese restaurant in town (China II), which is OK for a standard American-style Chinese joint. You know, with the illuminated photos hanging above the counter of dishes that clearly were made elsewhere (with names and prices not found on the menu), with half the backlighting burned out.

This new place looked like it would be different. The new name looks exotic. I can't remember it now but it's not "Happy Lucky" or "China Delight" or some such. And the grafitti-covered vans that have been parked there during the renovation are clearly from New York. So my expectations were up, my imagination ran wild. Maybe shades of Grand Sichuan??? One can hope.

I just carried out from there. First of all the menu was a clear disappointment. It's all chicken and broccoli, Happy Family, etc. I swear all Chinese restaurants must get their menus from the same print shop. The only thing that caught my eye was called simply "Beef and Shrimp Hunan Style", but the description promised shrimp and Chinese vegetables in a chili sauce; and thin, crisp strips of beef in a sesame sauce. It also indicated "spicy", so I asked for extra spicy.

The "Chinese vegetables" turned out to be broccoli and bell peppers. Maybe a canned baby corn or 2. Soggy, tough beef and rubbery shrimp. Everything was in a lifeless, brown, gooey sauce. Not a hint of spice (where's the chili???) or flavor other than salty, mucky blandness.

Why must it always be this way? I know those of you in New York and San Francisco can find some decent stuff, but why don't the other 152,000 Chinese restaurants in the US even try? Hell, around here even the hot dog joints try to differentiate themselves from each other.

Sorry for the rant but it's tough to have your hopes dashed so completely.

---Guy

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OK, I'll admit that where I live (just south of Wilkes-Barre PA) is not a foodie hotbed. 

A brand-new Chinese restaurant just opened at the end of my street.  Actually it was previously a Chinese restaurant (Peking Chef), but it's under new ownership and has undergone a complete makeover.  We have another Chinese restaurant in town (China II), which is OK for a standard American-style Chinese joint.  You know, with the illuminated photos hanging above the counter of dishes that clearly were made elsewhere (with names and prices not found on the menu), with half the backlighting burned out.

This new place looked like it would be different.  The new name looks exotic.  I can't remember it now but it's not "Happy Lucky" or "China Delight" or some such.  And the grafitti-covered vans that have been parked there during the renovation are clearly from New York.  So my expectations were up, my imagination ran wild.  Maybe shades of Grand Sichuan???  One can hope.

I just carried out from there.  First of all the menu was a clear disappointment.  It's all chicken and broccoli, Happy Family, etc.  I swear all Chinese restaurants must get their menus from the same print shop.  The only thing that caught my eye was called simply "Beef and Shrimp Hunan Style", but the description promised shrimp and Chinese vegetables in a chili sauce;  and thin, crisp strips of beef in a sesame sauce.  It also indicated "spicy", so I asked for extra spicy.

The "Chinese vegetables" turned out to be broccoli and bell peppers.  Maybe a canned baby corn or 2.  Soggy, tough beef and rubbery shrimp.  Everything was in a lifeless, brown, gooey sauce.  Not a hint of spice (where's the chili???) or flavor other than salty, mucky blandness.

Why must it always be this way?  I know those of you in New York and San Francisco can find some decent stuff, but why don't the other 152,000 Chinese restaurants in the US even try?  Hell, around here even the hot dog joints try to differentiate themselves from each other. 

Sorry for the rant but it's tough to have your hopes dashed so completely.

---Guy

Thanks for starting this topic pennbrew. I've often wondered the same thing and not just about Chinese restaurants. I've noticed this cloning going on in other cuisines as well. For instance the DC area has a plethora of Ethiopian restaurants, yet I've noticed the exact same menu items offered from menu to menu which always leaves me wondering what's being held back, what assumptions are being made about which of their dishes might be unacceptable to the American palate?

I wonder if the direct approach might not be the best approach? Has anyone ever just asked a restaurant owner why this is so?

Edited by divalasvegas (log)

Inside me there is a thin woman screaming to get out, but I can usually keep the Bitch quiet: with CHOCOLATE!!!

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Of course, since running a restaurant is a risky business with a high percentage of failure, perhaps the philosophy is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." They know for sure that people will order those same dishes over and over again so why risk being authentic and go out of business. There are very tasty local exceptions to this rule I'm happy to say. :smile:

Inside me there is a thin woman screaming to get out, but I can usually keep the Bitch quiet: with CHOCOLATE!!!

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Of course, since running a restaurant is a risky business with a high percentage of failure, perhaps the philosophy is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." They know for sure that people will order those same dishes over and over again so why risk being authentic and go out of business. There are very tasty local exceptions to this rule I'm happy to say. :smile:

Yeah, I know, give the public what they want; you won't go broke underestimating the taste of the American public, etc.

Just give me a Ma Po Tofu and I'll be happy. There's plenty enough room on the menu.

But I'll bet you any amount that this restaurant doesn't own a single Sichuan peppercorn.

Edited by pennbrew (log)
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There is actually a chinese restaurant in New York called Congee village. They have the most extensive list of atypical chinese food I've ever seen. It was the best chinese experience I've ever had. Their garlic chicken is literally covered in garlic cloves.

There are also a novelty item called "soup dumplings", where dumplings are filled with a very very rich broth. It is extremely fun to eat and very delicious.

As for chinese restaurants always being the same, I've known this since I was born. I've come to accept that it's how it is. It's mostly because the food most Americans are accustomed to are chinese-AMERICAN food, which is cantonese food warped to fit American tastes. I mean come on, fortune cookies? That's probably the most degrading patronizing food invention ever.

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I agree that the chinese restaurant formula is so prevalent because Americans know nothing about chinese food. This also applies to every other ethnic cuisine, Mexican, Italian, French, Japanese, etc...

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It applies to American cuisine too. Most diners have the same menu (with minor regional variations), etc. The reality is that in any segment of the restaurant business conformity is the rule. Very few places break away from it, in part because of the risk involved, and in part because of customer resistance, but also because there's significant effort and input required to invent rather than copy.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It applies to American cuisine too. Most diners have the same menu (with minor regional variations), etc. The reality is that in any segment of the restaurant business conformity is the rule. Very few places break away from it, in part because of the risk involved, and in part because of customer resistance, but also because there's significant effort and input required to invent rather than copy.

Not just in diners in America, but overseas you'll find "American" restaurants that follow a very set menu of "steak" (I'm being kind), salads with iceberg lettuce, and usually nachos or some such equivalent.

However, throw in my vote on the defence of the fortune cookie! I consider them one of the highlights of my meal, especially when they get innovative with the messages. And I'm sort of fond of the taste......

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I find that, as often as not, it pays to know what a Chinese restaurant's specialties are. Often, hidden among the pages of beef-with-broccoli, there will be a few dishes that reflect a regional identity, or are just really good. That's certainly the case in big cities-- you don't order all menu items at all restaurants-- but it's also true in smaller ones.

One of the best Chinese meals I've had was at a restaurant in a strip mall in suburban Cincinnati. It's not a hotbed of immigration, as far as I know; but we went with a couple of Chinese friends, who knew what to order, and were able to convince the servers that yeah, we really did want to order that room-temperature tripe dish. I'm not sure it was even on the menu, but we did order it, and it was fantastic.

That's the tricky part, and it's been addressed in many threads in the past: how do you persuade the restaurant to bring out the good stuff, and not the stuff they assume you want? If you can do it, you'll have a better chance of getting a good meal.

Edited by Andrew Fenton (log)
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The reality is that in any segment of the restaurant business conformity is the rule.

I know, I was expecting too much. The place certainly looks like it has potential, the renovations they did were rather elegant.

Seeing the "same old, same old" menu was a disappointment.

And the execution is worse than the older place in town, a whole quarter-mile down the road.

So why'd they bother? That's a rhetorical question...

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And also on the "not just in America" theme:

I used to travel extensively in Italy in the 1970's. What I'd find in the major cities and tourist destinations was in fact a pre-printed menu, in 4 languages (Italian, English, French, German) on which the restaurant filled-in the prices of the dishes they offered. So you had all the categories - "antipasti", "pasta asciutto", "carne", "pesce" and then listed were all the dishes that people think of as "Italian" though not those you necessarily went to Italy to discover outside their region: prosciutto e melone, insalata caprese, lasagne bolognese, fettucine alfredo, tortellini alla panna, bistecca fiorentina, spaghetti al pesto, etc. with prices filled in for the ones they offered. Though it'd be pretty foolish to order lasagne bolognese on the Isle of Capri, etc. But this corresponds exactly to the "diner" theory put forth earlier where diners now offer every dish known to man, and yes, I think that to a large extent, what the Chinese restaurants at that level offer is what the printer has decided that Americans think of as "standardized" Chinese food.

In the case of the Italian menu, I'm sure it made life easy for as many Americans as it horrified.

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Every year the Chinese Resturant News publishes their list of the 100 best Chinese resturants in the U.S. They do have a nice website too.

Edited by Naftal (log)

"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.Except for salami and eggs...Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced"--Alan King (1927-2004)

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That's the tricky part, and it's been addressed in many threads in the past: how do you persuade the restaurant to bring out the good stuff, and not the stuff they assume you want?  If you can do it, you'll have a better chance of getting a good meal.

Agreed, although restaurant selection is important too. Many restaurants are so soulless and generic that the only way to improve your experience is to go there a hundred times and fight a huge uphill battle to get them to make the good stuff and then serve it to you. This may be a workable strategy if you move to a bad restaurant town and it's your only option, however if you're traveling the better bet is to select places where there are at least signs of life.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I know, I was expecting too much.  The place certainly looks like it has potential, the renovations they did were rather elegant. 

Seeing the "same old, same old" menu was a disappointment.

And the execution is worse than the older place in town, a whole quarter-mile down the road.

So why'd they bother?  That's a rhetorical question...

About non-Americanized Chinese food, have you ever thought of asking the owners/chefs of the restaurants you frequent to make you something off the menu? When my family first moved to Canada, we were one of the few brown families in Winnipeg. There was one Chinese restaurant which, understandably, had a menu for non-Asian folks. We'd go there and my dad would say, "Just serve us whatever you're having for dinner," and we'd get a good Cantonese Chinese meal.

If the owners/chefs know you're looking for something better than what they usually offer, if they're serious about their food, they're probably more than willing to oblige you.

Take note, however, not all cooks at Chinese restaurants can actually cook.

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There was one Chinese restaurant which, understandably, had a menu for non-Asian folks.  We'd go there and my dad would say, "Just serve us whatever you're having for dinner," and we'd get a good Cantonese Chinese meal.

You might be surprised to learn how that just doesn't work for non Chinese people when we ask that. I've had some favorite Chinese restaurants write down the name of some things in Chinese (like Ong Choy) so that I can show the paper when I ask for it in my travels. The answer I get is "This is a vegetable only Chinese people like - you won't like it", and it does no good to explain that the reason I carry the slip is because I do like it. And I've been to chinese restaurants when the staff has been eating and asked for what they're having and been refused it on the grounds "you won't like it".

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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While certainly not Chinese, the fortune cookie wasn't originally catering to American tastes. (If they were, they would have been much sweeter anyway).

Near as anyone can tell, they evolved from Japanese sweet sembei, and most sources agree that they were invented by a Japanese American who presented them as business gifts enclosed with thank you notes. A few years later, a Chinese-American noodle company started producing them with fortunes inside and they quickly became popular.

I mean come on, fortune cookies? That's probably the most degrading patronizing food invention ever.

Jason Truesdell

Blog: Pursuing My Passions

Take me to your ryokan, please

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The real eye opener for me was when I found out that the Chinese people who worked at the best restaurant in town were Cantonese, not suprisingly their lobster sauce was awesome. Apparently Canton is where a lot of the Chinese immigrants in the business are from, at least the first generation ones. So the trick is this: if you are afraid to talk to them, understandably around here as the language barrier is so thick, find out by cruising their family style meals, then order accordingly, it's not going to be the same thing, but it's likely there are analogs.

And just printing Ma Po Tofu on the menu is no indication of anything good. I can now say that I have had bad Ma Po for the first time at the new restuarant that opened in my town, how psyched was I just to see it on the menu only to be flummoxed with generic brown sauce and a taste reminiscent of jarred thai chili sauce.

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I call it the interchangeable, plastic laminate menu. It seems that every Mexican or Chinese restaurant has the same stuff as the others

.

We have two new Chinese places here that have gone beyond the Egg Flower Soup, Chow Mein, Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Pork and serve things like Squid, Szechuan Tofu, and Chow Fun.

The problem as I see it is, as Fat Guy said, customer resistance. Last time we went for lunch I watched a mother and son scarf down some of that awful flourescent pink Sweet and Sour Shrimp. I nearly gag looking at it.

Must confess, I like fortune cookies, too. And, yes, I know they aren't authentic.

Edited by BarbaraY (log)
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It would be interesting to see the startup kits that new Chinese restaurants use. I'd love to know the name and address of the company, if there is one, that supplies generic American Chinese restaurants with their menus and, perhaps, provides for their supply lines and basic recipes.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Mistake number 1:

You're looking for chinese food in Wilkes Barre. Wilkes Barre has a grand total of about 2 chinese people, and they both probably work in that restaurant.

Mistake number 2:

You're asking Cantonese people to cook Szechuan food for you.

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The one or two winners on the menu - oh yes.

We used to live across the street from Fung Lin - they'd been in business for decades. They had one shrimp dish that was outstanding - crisp & tender shrimp, perfect broccoli and spicy thick tomatoey sauce. I have no idea if it was authentic. It was delicious and consistent. Everything else on the menu was 'ok'. After a few meals to test out a fair portion of the menu, we settled on that one winning dish and stuck with it. If that's not what we wanted, we went to a different restaurant.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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If you want real Chinese food, I cannot help. But, as far as I am concerned, the best, most unique Chinese-American food comes from the China Cafe in Novi, Michigan.

"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.Except for salami and eggs...Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced"--Alan King (1927-2004)

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At least in Wichita, "Chinese Food" is super-buffet-style, mostly cooked by undocumented persons from a country south of here, and SERVED by persons of Chinese descent. And it's the same thing on every buffet.

Now the Vietnamese and Thai is rather good and authentic, and there's a couple dozen Japanese table-cooking/sushi restaurants that are improving in quality, but Chinese is only what you'd expect, even in those places that feature a surly Mongolian Grill cook and his omnipresent tip jar.

Now, down at the end of my block and around the corner, there's a little take-out place, Egg Roll King, that makes a good fried rice and egg rolls. I run through their drive-through to supplement whatever I'm making at home. It's neighborhood, the family that runs it are friendly, and the food's always hot. But their menu is a mishmash of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean, most of it passable, except for the over-reliance of onion as filler.

And I like fortune cookies.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“A favorite dish in Kansas is creamed corn on a stick.”

-Jeff Harms, actor, comedian.

>Enjoying every bite, because I don't know any better...

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      Each table was equipped with a basket containing bottled water, a thermos flask of hot water, paper bowls, tissues etc. And most importantly, a bunch of Luosifen caps. These read “万人同品螺蛳粉” which means “10,000 people together enjoy luosifen”
       

       
      Yep, that is the soup pot! 15 meters in diameter and holding eleven tons of stock. Full of snails and pork bones, spices etc. Chefs delicately added ingredients to achieve the precise, subtle taste required.
       

       
      Noodles were distributed, soup added and dried ingredients incorporated then there was the sound of 10,000 people slurping.
       

      Surrounding the luosifen eating area were several stalls selling different goodies. Lamb kebabs (羊肉串) seemed most popular, but there was all sorts of food. Here are few of the delights on offer.
       

      Whole roast lamb or roast chicken
       

      Lamb Kebabs
       

      Kebab spice mix – Cumin, chilli powder, salt and MSG
       

      Kebab stall
       

      Crab
       

      Different crab
       

      Sweet sticky rice balls
       

      Things on sticks
       

      Grilled scorpions
       

      Pig bones and bits
       

      Snails
       
      And much more.
       
      To be honest, it wasn’t the best luosifen I’ve ever eaten, but it was wasn’t the worst. Especially when you consider the number they were catering for. But it was a lot of fun. Which was the point.
       
    • By liuzhou
      Chinese food must be among the most famous in the world. Yet, at the same time, the most misunderstood.

      I feel sure (hope) that most people here know that American-Chinese cuisine, British-Chinese cuisine, Indian-Chinese cuisine etc are, in huge ways, very different from Chinese-Chinese cuisine and each other. That's not what I want to discuss.

      Yet, every day I still come across utter nonsense on YouTube videos and Facebook about the "real" Chinese cuisine, even from ethnically Chinese people (who have often never been in China). Sorry YouTube "influencers", but sprinkling soy sauce or 5-spice powder on your cornflakes does not make them Chinese!
       
      So what is the "authentic" Chinese food? Well, like any question about China, there are several answers. It is not surprising that a country larger than western Europe should have more than one typical culinary style. Then, we must distinguish between what you may be served in a large hotel dining room, a small local restaurant, a street market stall or in a Chinese family's home.

      That said, in this topic, I want to attempt to debunk some of the more prevalent myths. Not trying to start World War III.

      When I moved to China from the UK 25 years ago, I had my preconceptions. They were all wrong. Sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice was reported to be the second favourite dish in Britain, and had, of course, to be preceded by a plate of prawn/shrimp crackers. All washed down with a lager or three.

      Yet, in that quarter of a century, I've seldom seen a prawn cracker. And egg fried rice is usually eaten as a quick dish on its own, not usually as an accompaniment to main courses. Every menu featured a starter of prawn/shrimp toast which I have never seen in mainland China - just once in Hong Kong.

      But first, one myth needs to be dispelled. The starving Chinese! When I was a child I was encouraged to eat the particularly nasty bits on the plate by being told that the starving Chinese would lap them up. My suggestion that we could post it to them never went down too well. At that time (the late fifties) there was indeed a terrible famine in China (almost entirely manmade (Maomade)).

      When I first arrived in China, it was after having lived in Soviet Russia and I expected to see the same long lines of people queuing up to buy nothing very much in particular. Instead, on my first visit to a market (in Hunan Province), I was confronted with a wider range of vegetables, seafood, meat and assorted unidentified frying objects than I have ever seen anywhere else. And it was so cheap I couldn't convert to UK pounds or any other useful currency.
       
      I'm going to start with some of the simpler issues - later it may get ugly!

      1. Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks.
       

       
      No, they don't! Most things, yes, but spoons are also commonly used in informal situations. I recently had lunch in a university canteen. It has various stations selling different items. I found myself by the fried rice stall and ordered some Yangzhou fried rice. Nearly all the students and faculty sitting near me were having the same.

      I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.
       
      I've also seen claims that people eat soup with chopsticks. Nonsense. While people use chopsticks to pick out choice morsels from the broth, they will drink the soup by lifting their bowl to their mouths like cups. They ain't dumb!

      Anyway, with that very mild beginning, I'll head off and think which on my long list will be next.

      Thanks to @KennethT for advice re American-Chinese food.
       
       
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