A=Americanized, B=Better, C=Chinese: the ABCs of San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants

The Alhambra Source is entering its fifth year producing stories. To celebrate, we’re publishing a retrospective of the stories that reflect our spirit and mission.

There was a bit of an uproar when Joe Soong, a Chinese-American and longtime Alhambra resident, poked fun at the stereotypes that surround Chinese restaurants. The comments section of the article turned into a soundboard. "The author doesnt know what hes talking about," wrote one reader. "Anyone who has eaten out extensively in town should recognize this as a humor piece," another reader responded. "At the time, I was hoping the readers would get that it was a satire that poked fun at some of the older style Chinese restaurants," Soong wrote to us in an email. "Fortunately, most folks appreciated the story's humor, and understood the intent." These days, Soong is still working in labor relations for the City of Los Angeles. He still dines in Alhambra, of course. "I really like the increasing amount and diversity of restaurants in Alhambra, whether [it be] Asian, Western or other type of cuisine," wrote Soong.

3.31.2011

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.

A Taiwanese Restaurant | By Nate GrayThere 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. 

A menu4. 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

 The receipt6.  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…

14 thoughts on “A=Americanized, B=Better, C=Chinese: the ABCs of San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants”

  1. I was born in Chinatown, and was married to a Taiwanese, so I am no stranger to the Real Thing. However, in my last six years in New York City I had food poisoning illnesses thirteen times. The last one left me with liver damage. Then when I came home, I caught it again twice, once in Downtown LA and once in SGV. So, much as I love eating “authentic”, I guess for me those days are over. I really need those ratings now.

  2. Give me a break. I am 1st generation Chinese immigrant who moved to LA since I was a kid. Being 1.5 gen, I KNOW what is good Chinese food, and I could say that it is embarrassing that Chinese Restaurants could not get their act together to improve food safety. Even if you ignore the rationale for the benefit of the rating system and need for food safety, the services are usually poor. Even China has better services and quality control now than the standard Chinese fare in Chinatown, Monterey Pk, or Alhambra. Go to Vancouver, and you will find some (not all) Chinese restaurants with clean and professional atmosphere, and the food is at least a couple notches better. The real problem of accepting this lack of refinement is that it will continue to de-professionalize real Chinese Chef in the US. So, no one could charge the real worth behind the labor intensive Chinese food. Bottom line, fine if you what to pay as little as possible for average Chinese food and hope you don’t come down with a serious case of food poisoning, but I would like the option of patronizing Chinese restaurants with food that rival what you could find in Hong Kong or China these days with professional “A” rating services.

  3. cute, but totally unoriginal concept. “it’s not good unless it’s dirty”. Give me a break. A lot of what you consider “Chinese” is actually southern Chinese. I suggest your check your facts before you go writing an article people might actually read. Though you did manage to get one thing right: rude inefficient service is, to your credit, just Chinese Chinese.

    Anyhow, recommending people go to “C” restaurants for the “authenticity” factor is cavalier on your part. Even if you’re semi-joking, which you are, you’re still being obnoxious and amateurish and kind of perpetuating stereotypes.

    1. obviously peter needs to get laid….

      1. uncle joe, is this you? what a snarky comeback. 😉

  4. This article couldn’t have come at a better time. I recently visited Banh Mi & Che Cali, and it fits the description of a “C=Chinese” restaurant perfectly. It had a red “C” grade hanging in the window, and when we walked in, it was PACKED. I was surprised that it was full of not only Asians but a few Hispanic customers as well. We initially went to get the 2 for 1 Boba but my husband was brave enough to eat not one, but two teriyaki sandwiches. (He ate mine, I was afraid to finish it). I’d love to see a similar story written for Hispanic restaurants. I know like Asians, their lack of consideration for hygiene and overall health standards can easily be construed as “authentic”.

    1. FWIW (and sorry for being obvious): BMCC (yes, we abbreviate – see BMMT) is Vietnamese. Not sure how the “C” can be punny for a Vietnamese restaurant?

    2. Christina, I like the story idea. Any Hispanic restaurants in particular you would suggest? (And I love Banh Mi & Che Cali — and it’s true, it’s always packed. I didn’t even notice the rating until we were working on this story.)

  5. Side benefit of eating at C restaurants: builds resistance to food borne illnesses because you always get a little bit every time you go.

  6. I love the SGV, but I cringe at Asian restaurants that have a C. One of my relatives is a health inspector and tells me horror stories of places that simply stack whole pigs, raw…on the floor in the kitchen…then dump the seasonings and sauces on top of that to marinate…***shiver***.

    I really like places that are always at “A” quality, like City Cafe, Green Papaya and Noodle World. I know I’m not gonna get sick there!

    1. Are you kidding me Noodle World! My friends and I have gotten sick a couple of times eating at that joint. Reason didn’t report to the County Health, trying to support the business in my community.

  7. I used to work for the City of Los Angeles and one of my tasks was inspecting basement electrical vaults and panels of commercial businesses. One of my areas was Chinatown. I can’t tell you how many times I would see pallets of open bags of rice on the ground, crawling with vermin and rats as well as “fresh” meat covered with flies. These were C-rated restaurants. I SWORE I’d never eat at another Chinese restaurant ever again.

    Sorry, I’ll stick with PF Chang.

  8. Cool. (Although the wedding-album-style photo menus show up often as not in places, especially high-end HK seafood houses, that are both authentic and good.)

    Some day I hope to channel my inner Jonathan Gold too…

  9. Loved the article I’ll keep the tips in mind, makes me want to explore.

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