How to Evaluate a Great Chinese RestaurantNovember 25, 2008
Beloved wife of mine (and newly skinny at that) loves Chinese food. We have eaten good Chinese, bad Chinese, outrageous Chinese, make-you-sick Chinese and unbelievable Chinese. We have eaten Chinese in Canada, U.S., France, Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, China, Philippines, Vancouver and San Francisco. We have eaten in Chinese places where no menus were in English and no one spoke any English. I have eaten 60 won-ton soup for 3 hours with my brother-in-law Glen, and had hot oil on duck that almost caused me to pass out by the heat.
To quote Monty Python, “I like Chinese”.
So, in honor of my semi-annual pilgrimage into San Francisco to eat and shop, here are my six tips for choosing a great Chinese Restaurant.
1. The Clientele: Are they mostly Chinese? If they are, you are in the right place. This would be true of almost any expatriate cuisine anywhere in the world, but never more so than with Japanese and Chinese food. Food preparation and tastes are art forms in Asian countries (much more so than here) and they know what makes good food according to their standards. The Expat Chinese always pick the best Chinese restaurants.
2. The Look: If it looks expensive, the food probably is lousy or at least second-rate. I have yet to eat great Chinese food in a place that spends much money on the architectural design. If the waiters and waitresses barely acknowledge you and if you are allowed to sit wherever you want, it probably is a fantastic restaurant. If the waiting staff is about to kill each other, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime find. Just ask the men who went down to House of Nanking last month.
3. The Menu: If there is no emergence of the words “Sweet and Sour” on the menu, it is good Chinese. In Guangzhou, a restauranteur told me that the words “Sweet and Sour” in Chinese translate as “White Men’s Food”. In fact, thick sauces (and MSG) are usually put on Chinese food to cover up the taste of inferior food. Light sauces combined with lots of vegetables in the dish (not overcooked) make the food fantastic.
4. The Chopsticks: Wood only! Yes, I know it is less sanitary, but Chinese food with plastic Chopsticks tastes like wine from a paper cup (or so I have been told). Also, there should be no forks and knives on the tables if it is a good Chinese place.
5. The Tea: They should be serving it as they give you the menu. If you have to ask for it, they don’t know their business. All great Chinese restaurants know that tea is like water when a customer comes in. Tea makes the meal.
6. The Order: If they bring all the dishes at once, they don’t know the palate or their business. They are just trying to get you out the door to serve others. Each dish should be brought in the order that your digestion can take it. I told you, Chinese cooking is an art form and all great cooks know this.
And Craig, you were right…House of Nanking is the best in San Francisco.