Earlier this week I was experiencing another round of D.C. vs. NYC comparisons on Twitter, and my thoughts turned to the state of Chinese food in the District. Specifically to the fact that even though there are several places in town that I like, a diner could easily stumble into any of them and walk out with a terrible meal. The bulk of the menu options at these restaurants are middling at best, and knowing which dishes to order is something of an art.
At Chinatown Express, for example, if you partake of the fresh noodles or the pork buns, you’ll come away happy, but there’s lots of nonsense on the menu. Great Wall Szechuan House has a solid roster of dishes on its ma la menu, but then tons of garbage. At Full Kee I love the spicy deep-fried head-on shrimp and the confusingly named salt fish chicken stir fried with chive flower (is it salt or is it chicken?), and at New Big Wong the dry scallop fried rice and eggplant with garlic are great. But at all these places, the bulk of the menu items are mediocre-to-bad renditions of Chinese-American staples, and word on the street is that the same situation applies at Panda Gourmet, the new hot spot. The madness needs to stop!
You can kind of see the economic calculation here. There’s a customer base out there for Chinese-American food, so purveyors of Chinese food want to provide it.
But there’s also a cost to this. There is a large and growing set of American diners looking for higher-quality Chinese cuisine. Not everyone is going to be up for jellyfish or tripe or head-on shrimp, but lots of people are adventureous enough to try a dish or two that’s off the beaten path. But the food needs to come away tasty. When your restaurant doesn’t do anything to signal that it’s a quality establishment with a quality staff cooking some quality dishes, then the people who want to eat that food don’t come. And the people who are just kind of stumbling around town looking for a place to eat end up ordering bad food. Your whole city develops a reputation for having “no good Chinese restaurants” and so nobody even tries and so folks just drive to Rockville instead. My suspicion is that we can’t be the only American city that’s in a somewhat similar situation—good ethnic restaurants that aren’t thriving as robustly as they ought to because timid proprietors are underrating white people’s desire to eat really good food.