Smithers: Shall I send out for some Chinese?
Burns: No, those people are all gristle.
“The Simpsons”, 1998
I occasionally lament the depressing sameness of Chinese take-out joints. I imagine a big restaurant supply warehouse somewhere in San Francisco—presided over by an octogenarian “chairman”—from which trucks depart for Staten Island, Ocean Springs, Bar Harbor, and Iowa City, all bearing the same packages of duck sauce, stale fortune cookies, chopsticks with mistranslated instructions, and photos of Chinese entrees for display over the counter.
A new Chinese restaurant opened downtown, though, that looked promising. For starters, the posters in the window are in Chinese, as if begging most of Iowa to not come in. The inside had a certain ambiance—no, it was just a layer of filth plus ants—that made me feel closer to authentic Third World flavor. It was hard to believe this was a new restaurant and easier to believe it was a place of ancient foodways and equally old sanitary practices.
I tend to estimate the quality of a Chinese restaurant by the number of misspellings in the menu: the worse the English, the better the taste. So my mouth watered when I saw “Crap Cakes” listed among some seafood dishes. But I didn’t order any crap cakes, and I skipped the fish head, boneless duck feet, and pork blood (even though I also gripe that Chinese take-out is basically just pork, chicken, or beef with some combination of carrots, mushroom, peas, and salty mystery sauce). I wimped out and ordered beef stew with ho funn noodles: good but adventureless.
They also had bubble tea, something I miss from my Mississippi days. Around the time I moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, bubble tea cafes were sprouting up all over courtesy of the area’s Vietnamese entrepreneurs. The bubble tea there was extremely sweet (probably catering to Southerners’ preferences for over-sweetened iced tea), but often flavored with fresh fruit. The stuff here was not too sweet but it was flavored with powder.
So does the ubiquitous Chinese take-out joint serve a useful purpose by providing us with a bland, safe alternative to duck foot based cuisine? Do they help preserve our notions of a cultural melting pot without forcing us to venture too deeply into the realm of beef offal soups? I shall ponder this over a bag of crab rangoon and sweet-and-sour sauce.