By Wayne Chan
As a Chinese American, a common question I get among my friends who aren’t Chinese is, “Wayne, what Chinese restaurant would you recommend?” Having lived in the U.S. all my life as well as spending a lot of time in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, I’m pretty confident of my Chinese culinary critical skills (CCCS, for short). You can usually count on me to provide a handful of great Chinese restaurants, at least in my area of town.
Having sampled a multitude of Chinese restaurants in my life, I’ve experienced a wide variety of Chinese cuisine across the scale, from the absolutely sublime, to “Chinese” food that requires you to put quotation marks around the word “Chinese” in order to specify that what is being presented as Chinese food is really just an approximation of what someone who doesn’t really know thinks Chinese food is supposed to be.
With my experience and critical eye (and tongue) to know what’s what, I thought it might be helpful to come up with a handy guide anyone could use to help quickly determine whether a Chinese restaurant is, in fact, Chinese, or really “Chinese”.
Before I lay out my guidelines based on my CCCS, I think it’s important that I stipulate that I am not going to focus my attention on really high end Michelin star rated Chinese restaurants that will ultimately cost you an arm and a leg. My Uncle in Hong Kong is the owner of Lei Garden in China and Hong Kong, which is one of the most prestigious and luxurious Chinese restaurant groups in the world. When I go visit him there, I basically camp out at one of his restaurants morning, noon, and night. I admit it – I’m a Lei Garden groupie.
If you intend to spend a lavish amount of money on Chinese food, you don’t need my help to find some place to do it. No, what is more satisfying to me is to find the hidden gem, the hole in the wall in the strip mall joint. Finding that diamond in the rough is the name of the game.
So, without further ado, here is Wayne’s 5 Simple Rules to Find a Great Chinese Restaurant.
#1 – Once you see a Chinese restaurant, pay attention to the restaurant name. If the name makes grammatical sense, be wary. Stay away from restaurants where something is golden. “Golden Palace” or “Golden Dragon” are big, red flags. You can be sure that there’s nothing golden in the establishment, and why a golden dragon would even translate into something tasty is beyond me.
On the other hand, if the restaurant has a name that in English language terms seems non-sensical, you may have hit on something good. If a restaurant has a name like “3 Hen Green Pot” or “China Heen”- park the car, this may be a winner.
#2 – As you approach the Chinese restaurant, be sure to look for a sign showing the hours of operation. If the sign says that the restaurant should be currently open, but the doors are locked, that’s the first good sign that this place could be worth trying. Always remember, a good Chinese restaurant uses the hours of operations sign as more or less an approximation, not something to strictly follow.
#3 – If the restaurant name is non-sensical enough and it happens to be open when it’s supposed to be, proceed to the lobby. First thing to watch out for, how attentive is the staff as you walk in? If they greet you with a smile, a warm greeting, and quickly have menus ready to seat you, be very wary. Prompt and friendly service is often a warning sign. If you don’t feel inclined to leave immediately, you’ll need to look for other cues before taking a seat at the table.
If, on the other hand, you wait for a good 5 minutes as harried food servers are walking in and out of the kitchen carrying hot platters of food to patrons, that is a good sign. Add two points if the serving staff actually sees you and still keeps you waiting for another ten minutes.
#4 – As you walk towards your table, pay attention to the flooring. If the floors are vinyl tiles or linoleum, and they are slick with so much grease that you could oil skate to your table, slide over as safely as you can and take a seat. More than likely, you’re in for a treat.
#5 – After perusing the menu and making some preliminary choices, once the server arrives and is ready to take your order, a good test is to ask if the kitchen can make a substitution, like switching chicken to shrimp in a dish, for example. If the server readily agrees to make the change, it’s still not too late for you to get up and get a quick bite at the McDonalds across the street.
On the other hand, if the server replies with “The dish is no good that way.” or even starts arguing with you about your request, you’ve hit nirvana.
We once went to a Chinese restaurant and specifically asked the waitress if they could not put monosodium glutamate (MSG) in any of the food, as it gives my wife a headache. Chinese restaurants often put MSG into the food as a flavor enhancer. Ten minutes after digging into the food we ordered, my wife Maya started to feel a dull ache at the back of her neck.
We immediately checked with our server. I said, “Excuse me – we specifically asked you not to put any MSG in, right?” She said, “Yes, that’s why I told the cook to put less in for your dishes. If we don’t put any in, it won’t taste right”.
I’ve put these guidelines together with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but I do believe there’s a glimmer of truth running through it.
That truth is, there’s a time and place for everything. An amazing meal with top notch service and a glitzy setting? You bet, but there’s something to be said for a small restaurant to focus in on one thing and one thing only – serving great food and nothing but that.
More often than not, that’s just fine with me.
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