How to Choose a Real-Chinese Restaurant

How to Choose a Real-Chinese Restaurant

Next to money, Chinese love nothing more than food. The irony is that we eat so fast, one wonders how we can really enjoy the flavors and textures. Sometimes, Chinese will order or serve something just because it’s expensive. It could smell and taste like a horse’s ass, but if the price is impressive, the meal is adored just the same. Actually there is a dish called “horse’s ass with snow peas.”

If P.F. Chang’s is Chinese, then Chili’s must be Chilean.

This “privileged” dining is not an everyday occurrence, of course. Actually, for standard dining, the cheaper it is the better, because as I said: money comes before food.

Why Chinese Restaurants Were Invented

But no matter how good other food might be, Chinese privately think there’s nothing better than Chinese food. Many Chinese will only eat Chinese food, regardless of how long they’ve had to acclimate themselves to Western palates. Sure, they’ll “try” other kinds of food, but if it’s an ordinary day, they will only eat ordinary Chinese food.

The exception to this rule is usually other Asian food like sushi or Thai or Vietnamese, which are just derivations of Chinese food. It’s the same amount of excitement as when Real-Americans put guacamole on a hamburger.

Because Chinese simply hate trying new things, bringing the food from the motherland is important. Did you really think Chinese people open Chinese restaurants for Westerners? No. We needed our food, our way.

The problem is that Chinese are too cheap to eat out everyday, and without enough customers, many of these Chinese restaurants could not survive in America if it only catered to Chinese palates. So in come the Real-American standards.

You know them well: broccoli beef, Kung Pao, fried rice, egg rolls, sweet and sour, and fortune cookies. This is garbage food no Chinese would ever eat, but for Real-Americans it’s so good, they can’t stop eating it. Why? There are two basic principles in successful cooking for Real-Americans. Armed with these, no Chinese restaurant can ever go out of business.

Sugar and frying.

Anything that combines sugar and frying, especially with a pork or shrimp product, will win over every single Real-American (except for vegans who, let’s face it, are not Real-Americans). McDonald’s knew it and now so do you. Of course, McDonald’s has yet to manufacture something approximating pork or shrimp, but when they do, look out!

Getting Real-Chinese

Let say you want to graduate and want an authentic Chinese meal. How do you know if you’re in the right restaurant?

By far, the best option to get true Chinese food is to go right in the heart of the beast. That means Asian super-strip malls. These have become the highest concentration of Chinese restaurants in suburban California. Asian super-strip malls have also reinvigorated the neon signage industry. Yes, you’ll have to deal with the lack of parking spots, long waits, and, if you happen to be anything other than Asian, gawking Asians who will stare and then look away. You’ll feel as if you’re in a foreign country because you won’t recognize the language or the culture.

But suck it up. If you want real Chinese food, go to the source or the nearest available re-creation.

But Asian Strip Malls Are Scary

If strip malls are not feasible because your state has yet to be invaded by masses of hungry Chinese, or you simply cannot deal with the parking situation, which has led some to tears and frustration, you will have to learn to pick a restaurant with other tools.

Look at the parking lot. Do you see a lot of Honda Civics or Toyota Corollas? Then you’ll likely find a very safe, economical Chinese restaurant frequented by starving engineers. The frills will be low (think plastic utensils and paper cups), but the food in vast quantities served from buffet-style steamer trays.

Or do you see Accords and Camries and the occasional minivan? That’s a sure sign of a noisy, middle-class family restaurant where you’re likely to get a lot of food but little service.

If the parking lot is populated with Lexi, BMWs, and the latest Benzes, the restaurant will likely be pricey, the food in “diet” sizes, and a comfortable atmosphere with lots of cell phones going off.

If you see American cars, you probably accidentally wandered into a Panda Express.

Take a Number

Once you open the door, you should see Chinese people waiting for a table. This is an important sign. It means mainly that people who come are staying an awful long time and there are more people who want tables than people who want to leave.

You must also have trouble getting a host/hostess to get you on the list. They should have no smile when they talk to you and have little to say other than “how many” and they should never ask your name, only give you a number hand-written on a scrap of newsprint.

Some call it arrogance, but really it’s confidence. They’re booked, and you want to come in for a spot? So what? Get in line. They have no time to ask you how to spell your damn name.

“Oh, Mr. Kowalski. How are you this evening? You’d like a table for only four people? Would you mind waiting twenty minutes?” Ninja, please.

The more irritated the host or hostess seems, the better proof that the owners have not paid them very well meaning more value is put into the food.

Census Check

While waiting for a table, make sure you look at who’s at the tables themselves. Do you see non-Chinese? Are they with real Chinese? These non-Chinese are generally being “introduced” to the restaurant because everyone knows that they wouldn’t have the balls to come there by themselves. Not like you.

You should also suddenly feel like you’re being gawked at because you are.

You should see at least a 10-to-1 ratio of Chinese to non-Chinese. If this is ever violated, even in the Midwest, something is seriously not good about this restaurant and you should make way right out the door. It’s a sign that the food is geared towards American palates — or worse, some kind of Frankenstein Chinese food like fusion or Chinois. This is pretentious vomit-bag crap that even a Chinese dog given nothing but romaine lettuce for three years would turn his slobbery jaws from.

If P.F. Chang’s is Chinese, then Chili’s must be Chilean.

Judging a Book by Its Dingy, Moldy, Nasty Cover

If the atmosphere seems too clean, it means there’s not a lot of food. If it’s too dirty, you’re going to eat like a king, because the owners and staff are concentrating on the food not the decor. If there are roaches, walk out. Even Chinese people should have limits. Flies, however, are welcome as they’re a sign that the door keeps opening and closing because so many want to patron this establishment.

Look at the pattern of waiters and waitresses. Do they seem organized or chaotic? This will tell you about the service. It doesn’t matter from a meal standpoint, but it is something Real-Americans seem to have a problem with so it’s better to know ahead of time to lower your expectations.

Also, are you sitting or standing? If you’re in a real Chinese restaurant, there won’t be any chairs to sit on while you wait. The owners should have only bought enough chairs for paying customers. I mean do you want people to spend money on chairs or food?

Your Food Swam Once

Do you see a tank of water? That’s a great sign. If the tank is filled with giant fish, lobsters, and crabs, you’re in for a great meal. If the tank is filled with goldfish, you’re in for a beautiful, expensive meal. A food tank guarantees freshness of the meal and fish that have sat in the tank getting fat and delicious.

The aquarium is a sign of thoughtful Feng-Shui by the owners and really means they understand how to make you pay extra for nothing so they can live a happy, healthy life.

If the restaurant has no tank, order beef, chicken, and tofu only. If they can’t care for fish (the easiest pet in the world), how can they can they hope to keep their customers alive?

Strangely enough, you’ll have all this time to make these observations, because you shouldn’t get a table for at least thirty minutes. So go and enjoy your first excursion into the world of real Chinese dining.

Photo Credit: KellyB. via Compfight cc

With decades of experience being Chinese in America, I am fully qualified to tell Real-Americans everything they need to know about being Chinese.