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Aug 5, 2006 05:22 AM

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.