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Why does most Chinese take-out food suck, and yet we still eat it?

GOOD Chinese take-out is becoming more and more difficult to find. We settle for what we consider "the best" but what we really mean is for "what's close by". No matter how much it disappoints, we still eat it. Lot's of brown gloppy sauces, over or undercooked vegetables,
and the same humdrum rice. We do this sometimes twice a week or more. Why? Has the food become too Westernized? Are these young cooks just doing some kind of forced labor with no formal training? Take-out used to be a pleasure to eat, but not so any more.

(As of late, I peer into the take-out shops first to see the ages of the people manning the woks. Almost always, I've found the older men to be better more experienced cooks, and that theory is confirmed after I receive my food).

Has anybody shared in these experiences?

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  1. Who's this we, kimosabe?

    Chinese-american food in the burbs is mostly inedible, but pretty much all foodies and chowhounds have known that for the last 20 years. Recent posts about our xenophobic anti-immigration laws creating an isolated environment for the Chinese that came over during the California gold rush for over 90 years, explained the reasons, which I had never known before. The standard egg rolls, pupu platter, general Tso/Gau, moogoogaipan, boneless ribs, eggfooyoung, and dark brown fried rice, all falls under the same category as Americanized red sauce Italian, and much of our chain food cuisines. Ok - maybe it's not all inedible, but there's no differentiation, nothing special - they're not food finds in any sense. Everybody's is pretty much the same.

    In the Boston area, we find the greatest selection of real Chinese food in - surprise - Chinatown. In NYC, various enclaves exist outside of Chinatown, and some people say that they are even better than what's in Chinatown. Whether it's dim sum, Sichuan, Taiwanese - there are many authentic regions and styles represented, and while not everything is always outstanding, even the worst is usually much better than the Americanized glop.

    There are some outstanding regional cuisines becoming available in the burbs around here, and surprise, their customers are mostly Chinese.

    Our favorite sichuan place is one town over - we go there about once a week and take out from a wonderful selection, including five flavor beef (cold tendon), spicy bamboo shoots, long wonton soup, ma po dofu, dan dan noodles, whole fish in chili sauce... there's not a drop of brown gloopy sauce in the entire menu. It's amazing, to me, how much mandarin I hear in there.

    We do go to one local American-chinese place, but only because they bring in their duck from chinatown every day, and I can get a whole or half duck cheap without driving into Boston. I buy the frozen pancakes at the local chinese food store and steam them in my bamboo steamer. Slice up some scallions and open up a jar of good hoisin sauce, (yes, it's brown and gloopy - but not overpowering), and as they say - we're good to go!

    1 Reply
    1. re: applehome

      "In NYC, various enclaves exist outside of Chinatown, and some people say that they are even better than what's in Chinatown. Whether it's dim sum, Sichuan, Taiwanese - there are many authentic regions and styles represented, and while not everything is always outstanding, even the worst is usually much better than the Americanized glop."

      NYC actually has two "chinatowns." Chinatown in Manhattan and the Flushing Chinatown, there's also an area in Brooklyn not called "chinatown." Consensus is generally that the Flushing Chinatown has better food than Manhattan, it is less touristy and draws more recent immigrants.
      However, many levels of quality exist in NYC, we have LOTS of brown glop places - they are a NYC tradition. From the Upper West Side to Brooklyn to Harlem brown glop reigns, even right next to authentic restaurants. Brown glop places serve some of the most disgusting food you will ever eat, not at all how I remember Chinese take out as a kid.
      At the authentic places I've had the best restaurant meals of my life. Sichuanese (actually a 4-chain restaurant in Manhattan but super authentic), strictly Shanghainese, and a very popular large restaruant on Main St. in Flushing that may or may not be region specific.

      Anyway, the OP was asking about Chinese "take-out," not where to find authentic Chinese food.

    2. In the OP's defense, Chinese-American can be well or badly cooked just like anything else, it doesn't have to be horrid. But as I seldom eat it any more, can't speak to the question. Maybe the newer generation has more options in life? A friend opening an American-style restaurant can't find good cooks either.

      1. In the last ten years the quality of Chinese take-out in my town (CT suburb)has gone from fair-good to exceptional. An Asian family moved to the area about seven years ago an opened a high-end Chinese, absolutely fantastic. they followed with a Sushi-Asian around the corner, also fantastic. I consider us really lucky to have two choices on any given night.

        BTW, i played poker with buddies the other night in the next town and he brought in Chinese from his favorite in his town. It was almost inedible. Only conform my luckiness.

        Condolences to all who are not fortunate to have great Chinese take-out. Great addition to the palate duringthe week.

        1. This experience is as relative as anything else. Mee Noodles, here in NYC, has been a staple Chinese takeouit for us and and have been sufficiently good. Looking through their steam-fogged open kitchen, I have discerned that the wok chefs are a mixture of young, old, new and long-time and that their age do not discriminate on the quality of the dishes.

          1. As a Chinese-American born in China currently living in a NYC neighbourhood with a decided dearth of good chinese food, I admit to eating 'take-out' chinese food on occasion. The main reason being that even if it's sub-par it still sates my desire for those raw essentials that I'm craving for at that particular moment - broad noodles with some vegetables in sauce, or even some semidecent char siu, etc etc. Of course, every time I eat in Chinatown or Flushing, I give myself a mental flagellation for ever ordering from those hole in the walls near my place.

            4 Replies
            1. re: fascfoo

              For the same reason you find that many tours organized for Chinese traveling abroad to Europe and other destinations, whether Chinese-Americans or Chinese from China, serve exclusively Chinese food on the tour. I guess the theory is that even bad Chinese food is better than other kinds of cuisine, though I personally wouldn't want to eat Chinese food in Czechoslovakia.

              1. re: Chandavkl

                Not to go too far off topic but Czechoslovakia has not been a country in about 13 years. In the Czech republic however you can get pretty good Chinese food. I actually found it interesting how the Chinese food there has been shaped by the people eating it Czechs. As Chinese food in the US is "americanized", so too is it "Czechised" there. The food tastes different than any i have had anywhere and it was surprisingly good. There was a decent ammount of Chinese immigrants to Prague during the days of communism

                1. re: MVNYC

                  I had good Chinese food in Moravia, the Eastern province of the Czech Republic, in Kromierziz. It was the pizza I could count on to be awful.

                  1. re: Steve

                    We had some of the best Chinese food ever in Almaty, Kazakhstan, but OMG, was the pizza AWFUL.

            2. We don't eat sucky Chinese take-out, ever.

              1. I am Italian from Brooklyn and grew up eating the traditional fried rice, egg roll, spare rib combination plates we all tried. Or the "chicken chow mein" which I actually liked. Then I married a Chinese lady, born in China near Shanghai and she taught me what "real" Chinese food was all about.

                The take out Chinese for American market assumed our taste buds wanted salt and used soy sauce and MSG in most of their dishes.

                Go to Flushing where I live now, try wonderful real Chinese food, when you look in the window and there are more Chinese than Americans give it a try. Joe's Shanghai for soup dumplings in particular, one if Flushing one in Midtown NYC on 56th St and one in Chinatown.

                In New York magazine this month they list 101 cheap eats in NYC, Spicy & Tasty restaurant on Prince St between 39th Ave and Roosevelt Ave is the 10 on the list...

                You have to try the non traditional places for good food and they all do take out.


                1. As stated in previous posts, the quality and variety of Chinese take-out have actually improved. Why we still tolerate less than good Chinese take-out? inexpensive, convenient, variety so that everyone can pick a favorite, habit, movies and TV have everyone sitting around eating Chinese food out of white boxes.

                  1. None of the Chinese dishes that I like the best -- casseroles carefully layered in big clay pots, whole yellowfish in brown sauce -- could be served as take out. Not just because you'd lose the impressive visual presentation, but because all the subtly different flavors would, as you carry the dish home, get mooshed together to form a big brown glop.

                    1. Well, sometimes it's just a matter of location. The only two restaurants that deliver to my current apartment serve nothing but crap. I know where to get a good plate of General Tso's chicken (as in, they use fresh ginger, and the broccoli is steamed, not boiled) but it's 7 miles away, and thus doesn't deliver. If I don't want to go out and drive all the way down to Sam's, I'm stuck with brown glop, or whatever Thai-inspired thingy I can cook up on my own.

                      1. I'd suggest that with a few limited exceptions, take-out in general sucks -- by the time you get it home (or delivered), it's sloshed and knocked around and is not at all the same food as it would be taken from the kitchen to your table in a restaurant.

                        Chinese take-out, then, tries to mitigate this by adapting to things that survive the take-out process better -- but at the expense of quality.

                        Also, as we continually say on the L.A. board, where there are no large concentrations of Chinese, there is no good Chinese food. In our city, this manifests itself in a complete paucity of good Chinese restaurants at all west of downtown, let alone ones that do take-out... it's the same story in the New Jersey suburbs.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                          is it necessary to have to have a concentration of ethnic group X
                          to have X's native cuisine? Would that explain why BBQ doesn't taste the same when one is far from the Regional centers? Is it the wood, the pit,and location; or is it the handed down knowledge that can't be duplicated?
                          Or does that theory only hold for "foreign" foods?

                          1. re: bbqboy

                            Not to put too fine a point on it, yes, that's it. Quality (whether it's making sure barbecue is smoked for 12+ hours over hardwood or beautiful plates of Japanese food that are art for the eyes as well as the mouth) is enforced by having a large group of people who know what it's SUPPOSED to be like.

                            So, in Kansas City, barbecue is serious stuff because thousands of people in KC know what KC BBQ is supposed to taste like. If it didn't taste like that, people would object (either vocally or by voting with their feet). The same with Chinese food -- the demand is there for "real" Chinese food where there are lots of Chinese to pass judgment on the quality. Where there are only a few Chinese, or no Chinese, the food can be "wrong" and nobody will be the wiser.

                            1. re: bbqboy

                              Yes, it is necessary to have a sufficient concentration of ethnic group X to have good cuisine from group X's region. Having been in the restaurant business, here are a few simple reasons:

                              1. Supply: restaurants must order large quantities of veggies, meats, etc., from restaurant wholesale suppliers and not your local grocery store. If there is an insufficient demand for ethinc group X cuisine's raw ingredients, they will not stock it. Nor will farmers grow it. Importing small amounts of perishable foods by FedEx is too expensive. Then the restaurants will need to substitute locally available ingredients for the authentic ingredients, which usually throws off the flavor balance of the dishes.

                              2. Skilled cooks: If you don't have enough of a skilled pool of cooks, you simply won't find a good one.

                              3. Cost: It usually takes effort and money to make a good dish in any cuisine. But if no one knows what a good dish tastes like, why not cut corners and make a cheaper imitation. It generally saves them both money and effort.

                              1. re: raytamsgv

                                And, it's also the clientele. My husband's uncle wanted to open an authentic chinese restaurant--very pretty decor, served things like duck tongue, but in an area where people didn't appreciate/know that. Business suffered for months until he changed it to a cheap chinese buffet. Poor quality, cheap food is what they wanted. His wife makes "sushi" (her trade is bookkeeper and she's never cooked outside the house) and bakes desserts from Kraftfoods.com and everyone loves it. Business is booming.

                            2. re: Das Ubergeek

                              We have a chinese resto in fairfield county ct that is annually voted best asian food in the county. there is a very LOW concentration of asians in the 'hood (i would guess 1%) but the food is exceptional. they owners are asian with, unfortunately, a very non-asian personality. they couldn't care less about customer service, they are rude, they can push a 4-top in-out of a table in under 45 minutes and have no qualms about asking people to change tables midway through dinner, not once but twice. yet the food is outstanding. yes, you must be choosy about what you order to take the trek home, and yes it will not look as pretty coming our of a tin or a paper containe, but boy can they whip up some great stuff.

                              1. re: jfood

                                There is this Chinese rest on Woodhaven Blvd called East meets West. They are owned by Italian- Americans. How is that for Chinese take out. Plus there is a line out the door sometimes for an order.

                            3. Convenience, speed, and intense hunger.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Scagnetti

                                And you're usually hungover at the time!


                              2. My impression, perhaps unfair, is that chinese restaurants are a common first job for people coming to the US from China. I would guess that they all aren't great chefs. Beyond that I'll say that most Americans aren't too picky, convenience is the priority. It's an interesting challenge finding the right choice for take out, dodging the too sweet, breaded, generic, stuff that is often delivered. I knew a place in upstate NY where every dish tended to look the same; I'd deliberately order two to see if the cooks could create a difference between them!

                                1. I think take-out food in general is sucky. Now, I know that there are places that do GREAT take-out, but those are the exception and not the norm. Let's face it, getting boxed up in a closed container and then bagged for a 10- or 20-minute ride home doesn't do many foods much good, especially when we're used to having the food served pretty much immediately after it's done, or even after a short rest. I don't think I've ever had a take-out meal that DIDN'T suffer from the 'take-out' part of the experience.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: ricepad

                                    Yeah, I think the best Chinese take-out I had was when we lived in Tigard, outside Portland, Oregon, and there was a Chinese place downtown, about three blocks from our house. we could go pick it up and have it home to eat in only minutes.

                                  2. Only good take out that I have in a few years was The Peking House on Nostrand Ave in Sheepshead Bay. Funny when I go there there are Chinese odering as well as Americans. The chef is culinary grad. Give it a whirl it is like the the way you remebered it. As for the real Chinese food I agree with an above post go to where the Chinses are eating . You will notice the differnce in the first bite.

                                    1. Chinese Take Out in general is disgusting. The worse the food is when you eat it at the restaurant, it will be even more gross and inedible as take Out.

                                      If the food is made from good, fresh ingredients, it should be consumed on the spot, right from the kitchen. The covered containers can take even fine quality stir fries and roasted dishes and turn them into a soggy mess with the sauce diluted and gloppy.

                                      The only thing that travels well is soup, and some noodle dishes.

                                      Why not make a resolution to eat good Chinese food at the restaurant? It is prepared the way it is supposed to be eaten. Save takeout for the times you are sick, if any.