As a Chinese American and longtime Alhambra resident, Joe Soong is often asked for recommendations for Chinese restaurants. Two years ago, Soong came up with some "advice" for what to watch out for when trying to find authentic Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley. What do you think?
As a Chinese-American who happens to have many non-Chinese friends, I have been asked many times for recommendations to Chinese restaurants. To help, I have created a tutorial in how to determine if an establishment is a legitimate purveyor of genuine Chinese cuisine.
In Los Angeles County’s restaurant rating system, each establishment is graded on numerous factors, with an “A” being the highest possible grade. However, a different, informal rating system applies to Chinese restaurants. Here’s a summary of the Chinese system that, like the Los Angeles County rating system, also appears as a letter grade in the restaurant's window:
"A" = Americanized. This is the least desirable rating, where the food establishment focuses too much on superficial attributes such as cleanliness and proper food temperatures. Instead of real Chinese food, it features mundane Americanized entrees such as sweet and sour pork and egg rolls. A real Chinese restaurant does not proudly display an “A” rating.
"B" = Better. This means the restaurant is better than an “A”, but not as good as a “C.”
"C" =Chinese. Real, homegrown Chinese food is served at this establishment. You won’t find reviews for these restaurants on the local TV news.
There are many factors that distinguish a superior “C” restaurant from other inferior Chinese restaurants. They are as follows:
1. The restaurant clientele must be minimally 95 percent Chinese and they will be speaking any one of the numerous Chinese dialects. Don’t worry about feeling out of place. Most patrons will be focused on their food and not on who walks in through the front door.
2. A real Chinese restaurant uses circular tables that can crowd up to 12 people at each table. If you’ve been to a Chinese wedding, you know what I mean. To guarantee equal access for all, the entrees are placed on the round, rotating Lazy Susan in the center of the table.
In contrast, many Americanized Chinese restaurants have long rectangular tables for larger groups. This works well if everyone orders their own entrée (non-Chinese style) or if you don’t mind being bothered by repeated, constant requests to pass entrées around to everyone else.
In inauthentic Chinese restaurants, the wait staff will make pleasant small talk and will periodically check up on you to see how you are doing. This may not be the case in a real Chinese restaurant. So, if you don’t see your waitress again until it’s time for the check, don’t worry, it’s not personal.
3. The wait staff will not be native English speakers and may have difficulty communicating with you. This is a positive sign because it indicates the waiters and waitress were hired to serve a primarily Chinese clientele and the restaurant most likely prepares the food accordingly.
In other words, you will be served real Chinese food. On the down side, because of the language barrier, there is a high likelihood that at least one of your entrees will be a dish you did not order. Enjoy the braised pork spleen.
4. In a restaurant serving true Chinese food, the menu almost seems to be an afterthought, which is a good thing. This means that the food establishment did not spend too much time on it, primarily focusing its efforts on the food. The menu will be a minimal affair, most likely composed of simple, laminated, and possibly food-stained Xerox copies. If the menu resembles a wedding album with a fancy cover, pictures, and possibly designed by a graphic artist, then the restaurant is probably not authentic.
In a real Chinese restaurant, the menu was probably created by the same person who hired the wait staff, ordered the vegetables from the wholesaler, and who looked at you like you were an idiot when you asked him if he could take the chicken out of the Kung Pao Chicken because you are a vegetarian. Remember, in a real Chinese restaurant, the customer is right only some of the time.5. Item descriptions in a Chinese menu are also telling. In a fake Chinese restaurant, entrées are described in flowery, verbose prose to persuade you to select the item. In an authentic Chinese restaurant the food sells itself. Let’s use barbeque pork buns as an example:
Fake Chinese restaurant: Shanghai steamed buns – Sweet, succulent, Shanghai style barbequed pork in a steamed bun, hot to the touch, but oh-so-tasty in your mouth. A true pearl of the Oriental, from the Great Wall of China to your dinner table – $3.75 each
Real Chinese restaurant: Pork bun – 3 for $2.25
6. The most important factor of all: Don’t worry if the restaurant doesn’t look like your idea of what a restaurant should be. That’s part of the fun and adventure of living in an area with the diversity of Southern California. Try a restaurant you’ve never tried before, order an entrée you’ve never tasted and maybe discover your inner Jonathan Gold. You just might be pleasantly surprised…
Originally posted 03.31.2011.