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A=Americanized, B=Better, C=Chinese: the ABCs of Chinese restaurants in the SGV

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. 

A Taiwanese Restaurant  | By Nate Gray3. 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.

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8 thoughts on “A=Americanized, B=Better, C=Chinese: the ABCs of Chinese restaurants in the SGV”

  1. Anyone who has eaten out extensively in town should recognize this as a humor piece. (Not sure how effective the humor is, though, judging by some of the responses here.)

    This totally plays on the fears of non-Chinese diners: “enjoy the braised pork spleen” and “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.”

    If you look like you may be unfamiliar with Chinese food and somehow order something like “braised pork spleen,” I seriously doubt the waiter is doing to deliver it to you without first asking if you’re sure you want that dish. Also, good Chinese restaurants are quite flexible, familiar with vegetarian diners, and can, yes, remove the chicken out of kung pao chicken. (You just stir-fry everything but don’t toss in the chicken; many Chinese and other vegetarians often ask for tofu or wheat gluten instead.)

    A few points should clue you into the fact that this is a joke: the part about the large circular tables, the lack of small talk by wait staff, flowery verbrose prose, the spartan menu, saying sweet/sour park and egg rolls are not authentic, etc.

    A lot, perhaps most, Chinese restaurants in the area probably do not have large circular tables. Not every Chinese eatery is a large, lavish dim sum or seafood restaurant.

    Some waiters/waitresses at so-called authentic restaurants do engage in small talk, especially if you’re a regular. My family engages in small talk with waitstaff (in English and Chinese) all the time: “How’s business?” “Oh, is that your mom?” “You must be so proud your son is graduating!” A conversation in English on election day led to a discussion about Obama and health care.

    There’s probably less flowery, verbose prose on the menus, but many of the names for dishes in Chinese are already flowery and verbose to begin with.

    This humor piece declares, “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.”

    Yet one of the more celebrated restaurants in the area, Shanghai No.1 Seafood Village, has a menu that’s exactly that. According to Jonathan Gold in his L.A. Weekly review, the menu is “a thick, glossy document stuffed with glistening pictures of spiked sea cucumber, elaborately produced photo essays (in Chinese) on Shanghai neighborhoods and old movie actresses, and more dishes than the human mind can contemplate. It is the Chinese restaurant menu equivalent of a September Vogue, except instead of models, there are crabs and stewed pig’s trotters and fried abalone, reproduced in nearly pornographic detail. To hell with dinner — you may want to just curl up with the menu and a snifter of Courvoisier.”

    “Instead of real Chinese food, it features mundane Americanized entrees such as sweet and sour pork and egg rolls.” Actually, sweet and sour pork and egg rolls are authentically Chinese.

    FWIW, the whole concept of “authentic” is a tricky one. What does it mean to be authentic? And who gets to determine authenticity? I suggest everyone do away with the authenticity test and just eat whatever tastes good to you. There’s room for everyone in the big tent of Chinese food.

    And while we’re on this topic, people should know that no one cares if you use chopsticks or not at Chinese restaurants. It doesn’t matter! Just eat more and be happy!

  2. WTF… I’m full blooded Chinese and I like pretty much everything that Chinese restaurants have to offer in their variety of dishes except the following:

    1) A dirty a$$ restaurant. Not perfectly clean is totally different than a$$ nasty. A perfect example: almost every bathroom at Asian places are unsanitary. Look it up, there’s a direct correlation to what a person thinks the kitchen conditions are when they see what the restrooms look like. So “A,B,C” ratings are a big deal it’s not just about the food.
    2) How’s a person suppose to enjoy authentic Chinese food when the tables are sticky, waiters and waitresses that are so bad that you pretty much have to fill your own water and get your own to go containers? To top it off, “expect to have at least one of your orders wrong”??? That’s like my mechanic telling me that my wheel might fall off after he worked on my car.
    3) Pretty much everyone at one point in their life has had food poisoning and knows how “crappy” it is. You’re pretty much dolling up the promotion of that crap. Mix it up with a culture of people who like to spit wherever and sneeze without covering their mouths. This is how bird flu/swine flu gets around… and you’re telling me that the “A,B,C” ratings are overrated??? No one should ever eat with this man unless you have a stomach made of iron with a pool of sulfuric acid and your intestines full of stranded butt pirates ready to rape anything solid.

  3. The author doesnt know what hes talking about.

  4. This USED to be true.

    But nowadays the scene has evolved to the point that some top-quality Chinese spots (i.e. Din Tai Fung) are getting “A” ratings. I’d say MOST fall into “B” still.

  5. god forbid a restaurant focuses on too much on ” superficial attributes such as cleanliness and proper food temperatures.” are you serious?

  6. SO TRUE! These are the rules of thumb I hand out to every westsider in SGV

  7. This is very funny, and quite true! I have not been to many “A” Chinese restaurants, but the ones I have been to are really… well, A’ed. Go for the C restaurants, everyone!

    One thing to keep in mind though, is that not all the Chinese restaraunts will have big circular tables with Lazy Susans. Most will at least have a medium-sized one with no Lazy Susan.

    There’s a difference in big and small Chinese restaurants, and there are even separate words/terms for them. Big restaurants are more of the equivalent of “eating out” for Westerners, but it is common to go often to a small restaurant for food (not as much in the Western-established ones, though).

  8. Great piece. Very true!