How good can Chinese food be?

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. ∎

2 thoughts on “How good can Chinese food be?

  1. Becca

    🙋‍♀️ As a lover of Chinese food, you honestly will never experience how amazing it is in the United States. Chinese cuisine is actually one of the most diverse and flavorful cuisines I have ever encountered in my travels. Straight up, you need to go to China and get some. Normal Chinese food isn’t heavy on salt, sugar, or sauces but the Americanized version is. Honestly, we completely destroyed some of the best food on this planet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric

    I’d definitely recommend trying hot pot or dim sum places or even a Chinese regional cuisine (Sichuan, Shanghai) style restaurant.

    The specialized cuisine restaurants are generally really good at what they do.

    Liked by 1 person

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