Get ready for some wild speculation:
Different foods have different degrees of upside and downside. Pizza, for instance, has sky-high upside and almost no downside—it’s really hard to mess up hot bread and cheese. Foie gras, on the other hand, has high upside and devastating downside.
I fear that Chinese food—or the popular American rendition of Chinese food—is the rare cuisine that has both low upside and high downside.
This occurred to me when I ate at the House of Nanking in San Francisco. The restaurant is renowned for disinterested service and incredible food. I ate the House Noodles, flush with grassy notes, and the Famous Nanking Sesame Chicken, deep fried and coated in a sweet, salty sauce. I happily ate both.
But this meal unsettled me. I spent the better part of a week trying to figure out why, and then it hit me: The meal I ate at The House of Nanking, while pleasant, was eerily reminiscent of Panda Express.
Panda Express is, ostensibly, bad. Panda Express is also soul-warmingly fantastic. Taco Bell and McDonalds offer the same paradoxically joyful experience, but upscale burritos and the burgers feel like a different food entirely. Upscale Chinese food fails to differentiate itself.
I know subtle and aromatic Chinese food exists, but a cuisine that traffics so heavily in salt, sugar, and curiously thickened sauces risks succumbing to harsh uniformity. In a landscape dominated by ramen, pho, and curry, I no longer make time for chow mein.
I am adrift. I admit it. I am very far adrift. I await the Chinese food that will bring me back into the fold. ∎