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September 8, 2009 11:25 PM   Subscribe

Why do all strip mall chinese restaurants taste the same?

Is there some kind of turnkey Chinese restaurant package from the foodservice provider (Sysco, US Foods, etc)? Do they all just happen to order the same red-colored cubed pork (for PFR), breaded chicken (Sweet & Sour) and eggrolls?
They all appear to have the same Americanized menus with the same price points and the same food pictures on a backlit menu board. Are there any clues to finding an authentic Chinese place in anywhere, USA?
posted by ijoyner to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If the place you live has any places where chinese people live, work and shop, then there are likely to be authentic places there.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:33 PM on September 8, 2009

As a corollary to this question, how do Chinese restaurant owners get placed? I've been to Chinese restaurants in random places, and I really doubt that the Fujianese family just said "Dryden, New York" and ended up there.
posted by j1950 at 11:36 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Someone asked this a few months ago. I'm struggling to find the right tags.
posted by acoutu at 11:42 PM on September 8, 2009

posted by purpleclover at 11:47 PM on September 8, 2009

Why do all strip mall chinese restaurants taste the same?

It's mostly MSG, but also the basic combination of ginger/garlic soy sauce. My local takeaway in the UK and a lot of the Chinese food I've eaten in the US (I'm married to a Chinese-American guy) taste the same. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a uniformity going on.

Speaking as a white girl that got suddenly immersed in Chinese American culture: if you want to find decent Chinese places you just need to look for actual Chinese people. Don't walk into a place where there are more white people than not, look for the elderly Chinese immigrants. Bonus points if the menu has Chinese on it or no "American" section. Usually good Chinese food is not expensive - think under $15. One of the surefire ways is to go out on a Sunday morning (10am onwards) and look for the dim sum places packed out with people. If a Chinese restaurant is empty for Sunday lunch, that's a sign to keep driving.

I don't really know what North Carolina is like, but if you're ever in Southern California, check out these reviews [DISCLAIMER: I know this blog writer in real life now, but read his reviews before]. You could also try Chowhound, but the people over there can trip themselves up with food snobbery, so take their advice with a pinch of salt. The general opinion around these parts is that good Chinese food is hard to find in San Diego, but very easily found in LA, so sometimes you have to get in your car and go for a ride. Road trip to LA?
posted by saturnine at 11:52 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Because that's what white people want.
posted by randomstriker at 12:00 AM on September 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

> As a corollary to this question, how do Chinese restaurant owners get placed? I've been to Chinese restaurants in random places, and I really doubt that the Fujianese family just said "Dryden, New York" and ended up there.

Why wouldn't they? They probably had a set amount of money to spend on a business, wanted a good school district and a safe neighbourhood, and Dryden, NY fit the bill. Just like anyone else? Chinese people have access to just as many resources as anyone else - quite a few of them, for example, come to the US and get their real estate license (I have at least two immediate family members that have done that).
posted by saturnine at 12:03 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Having worked in a Chinese restaurant I can tell you: one of the main reasons they 'all' taste the same is that they 'all' purchase from the same three distributors. It's not Sysco, but several dozen of the restaurants I've been to are supplied from two places in SF and one in NYC, right down to who prints the menus. As the previous post says, if you can get your hands on the stuff the Chinese (realize 'Chinese' is probably even less ethnically specific than 'white') staff eats, you will find it does not resemble at all anything you will find on the menu.
posted by headless at 12:06 AM on September 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

Aside: I recently moved to South Korea. Last week my wife and I found ourselves illiterate and starving. A nearby department store had a food court, so we popped in. The only place with anything in English was, I kid you not, "No 1 Chinese". It tasted exactly like the sloppy, greasy stuff from back home. An enormous comfort, which is weird. American Chinese food in Korea.

(DISCLAIMER: I've been to Flushing. I know the score. But American-Chinese is it's own thing and I will always, always love it)
posted by GilloD at 12:30 AM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Jennifer 8. Lee wrote a book that answers this question in significant detail. Here's the Amazon page.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:46 AM on September 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think headless has the answer that was being looked for. I have noticed that in Canada, there are a couple of large Chinese food manufacturer/distributers for fortune cookies and individual packages of soy sauce, sweet and sour, etc. (Wing's maybe? - I have seen Edmonton and Missausauga on the package info, and there is a fortune cookie factory on Dupont in Toronto). I would expect they also make packaged, diced pork cubes with red dye #12 colouring on the outside to simulate bbq-ed-ness, etc.
posted by molecicco at 1:20 AM on September 9, 2009

FWIW, the same thing happens in Australia, though with completely different 'Australianised' dishes. There's no General Tso's anything, no such thing as egg rolls, and I can't remember ever seeing chop suey on a menu. Instead, Australians order the same dishes at every restaurant, no matter how many hundreds of items there are on the menu:

- sweet and sour pork
- beef in black bean sauce
- lemon chicken
- honey prawns
- Mongolian lamb

'Satay' is a recent (ie, last couple of decades) development - it means drowned in a bland peanut sauce. Otherwise, they all taste identical - the same batter; the same glossy, sickly sweet sauces; the same melange of bell peppers, carrot and onion; the same texture to the tenderised-beyond-belief meats. They all come packed up with in the same clear plastic containers with the same fried rice, the same bag of prawn crackers and the same deep fried spring rolls.

Annette Shun-Wah wrote a great book about the evolution of Chinese food in Australia, right down to the use of lemon butter for the development of our distinctly Australian lemon sauce, called Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony. I won't link to Amazon, because there's only one copy for $585, which is just ludicrous.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:23 AM on September 9, 2009 [6 favorites]

As randomstriker says, its because people like it. Similar distributors means you get the same packaged condiments, it doesn't mean the food they cook is the same.

No restaurant is foolish enough to not make their own batter/sauces. It tastes similar/same because Americans like American-style Chinese food (ie cheap, greasy, fried)
posted by wongcorgi at 2:06 AM on September 9, 2009

obiwanwasabi has it absolutely right. That was the Chinese food I grew up with in Australia (literally, we ate Chinese once a year and it was always that menu exactly) until I got to know better and discovered the delights of Sydney's Chinatown. The best tip other than looking for a restaurant with Chinese diners - look for something regional other than Cantonese. I tend to go to Beijing, Szechaun and Shanghai-speciality restaurants nowadays.

I was in Norway last week and the menus were all about Chop Suey. There is some variation globally amongst the standardisation.

This isn't much different from how a lot of Thai curries taste the same, because they all use Mae Ploy sauce. Lucky for me that one's easily available to buy at the supermarket to enjoy at home.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:19 AM on September 9, 2009


I disagree. My favorite Chinese restaurant is very much "cafe" style, so not a big, fancy place. And they make their own home-made orange chicken sauce that is absolutely amazing. I asked the owner (who knows me by name because I ask for the orange chicken "not crispy, soft" as he likes to say) about it and he said it's a recipe he brought over from Hong Kong. And damned if it isn't the best orange chicken I have yet had.

But by-and-large, at places that aren't THIS place, they are all the same strip mall homogenized Chinese food to me, which is very strange and I just bought the book.
posted by disillusioned at 2:24 AM on September 9, 2009

The first time I had dinner with my girlfriend's family was at a more traditional place in Chinatown, with the rotating circular table and constant stream of food served family style. It tastes nothing like Chinese fast food (by which you surely mean some combination of egg roll, orange chicken, and sweet-and-sour pork). It was, in fact, almost entirely seafood. And then there's dim sum, 95% of which you wouldn't find on the menu of take-out shops.

Take-out Chinese food all tastes the same because it's fast food, and fast food tends to be like that. Burgers, burritos, pizza all taste nearly identical as well (when you are getting the cheap, quick stuff.) Doesn't seem much a mystery to me or unique to Chinese food.
posted by cj_ at 3:05 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

ijoyner: Why do all strip mall chinese restaurants taste the same?

Maybe because you already believe they all taste the same? Try ordering one thing consistently from the menu at many different places, and see if there's a variety in quality. I've had a wide range of experiences with these restaurants. Sometimes the General Gao's chicken is awesome; sometimes it sucks. Sometimes the chicken wings are greasy and thin, sometimes they're meaty and relatively dry. and so on.
posted by not_on_display at 4:37 AM on September 9, 2009

They all use the same "ingredients" from the same food service company and/or importer. Try to think of it this way: they are not buying ingredients as many restaurants do. They buy a finished product or semi-finished. The chicken could already be seasoned and frozen. So, for example, if the sauce is from a package or a jar it should taste just like the other Chinese restaurants. While they are not franchises of the McChinese Food corporation, many will end up with food that is unintentionally identical to other non-affiliated Chinese restaurants. This is my opinion based on what I know of the food service industry.
posted by zerobyproxy at 4:57 AM on September 9, 2009

If you find an authentic Chinese restaurant, you may want a copy of the linguist James D. McCawley's book The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters (now back in print, I see), which will help you with the sections of the menu that are only in Chinese. I haven't read it, but many people have told me good things about it.
posted by sineala at 5:32 AM on September 9, 2009

Because they're strip-mall Chinese restaurants, in parts of town that aren't primarily Asian. To get authentic Chinese food, you pretty much need a population that will support it and isn't just looking for basically whatever they could find in a Panda Express. Look for signs in Chinese, Asian clientele, dim sum crowds, roast duck or live frogs or fish in the window, fish head soup on the menu, or other signs of authenticity if you want better, less homogenized food.
posted by notashroom at 7:45 AM on September 9, 2009

What's the mystery that most Chinese fast food tastes the same? There is no mystery - so does American fast food. Predictability of taste is part of the appeal for people who buy fast food. If you go to a better quality Asian restaurant - which admittedly are very difficult to find in middle America but can be tracked down in bigger cities and some college towns - you'll find the variety of tastes you're expecting, but you're probably not going to get it at the $4.99 Chinese lunch buffet unless you're in Manhattan, Vancouver, or San Francisco.

As headless says above, mall Chinese resembles the daily diet of Asian immigrants about as much as a Big Mac or Crunchy Bacon Potato Stuffd Burrito resembles the diet of the average American of Anglo or Mexican descent, respectively. Isn't this just common sense?

Also: Dryden, NY - just up the road from me (I'm in the N.E. part of Ithaca). A Chinese business owner's not moving there for the schools (not distinguished) or the safety (there have been murders in the small village and teen disappearances in recent years) nor the welcoming spirit to non-WASP immigrants (it's very homogeneously rural and white); he or she probably just thinks it's a good prospective market for cheap, generic Chinese fast food; as far as I recall, there's always been one Chinese restaurant on one of the little village's two main streets and I imagine they make decent money off people who want Chinese take out and don't feel like driving to Cortland or Ithaca, no matter how mediocre their food might or might not be.
posted by aught at 8:06 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anyone interested in this topic should read The Fortune Cookie Chronicles; it tells a lot about the history and setup of "Chinese food" in America.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:25 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing going where there Chinese people eat, or better, or where lots of Chinese people live. With the latter, there can be plenty of strip mall restaurants that are actually really good and authentic -- e.g., Millbrae and nearby towns in N California have lots of good examples.
posted by odin53 at 2:18 PM on September 9, 2009

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