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Flipping through the flimsy menu of Dumpling House, one of Harvard Square’s few Chinese restaurants, I was reminded of Robert Irvine. Host of Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible,” Irvine traveled across the country offering his counsel to failing restaurants. He heckled servers, taunted décor, flipped tables, yelled profanities, and spit out food prepared by hopeful chefs. Though his methods were highly questionable, the results of the transformation were undeniable. Once unpalatable restaurants blossomed into thriving establishments with remodeled rooms for diners, enhanced service, and revamped menus. This was the trashy culinary thrill I yearned for every week.
And yet, as I reflected on my affinity for “Restaurant: Impossible,” I began to consider Irvine’s pigeonholed definition of a “successful” restaurant. The transformations all seemed to follow a particular formula — and look a certain way. Classy, sharp interiors. Pristine service. Short menus. His restaurant revamps suggested that only 12-item menus could embody the next trendy restaurant, and that there was something inherently wrong with long menus that provided over 100 options for customers. I looked down at the multi-page Dumpling House menu, which had initially given me pause. The distinctions between Irvine’s idea of culinary success and the Chinese restaurants that I grew up loving, the cultural enclaves that I called home, upset me. Could Chinese restaurants ever fit the mold of a successful business, or would they, much like the rest of Chinese culture in America, continue to be typified as “other”?
Chinese restaurants and their menus have faced sharp criticism by many Americans, whether Robert Irvine or Huffington Post writer Joe Satran. In a 2012 article, Satran cites these menus as the main reason for distancing (mostly privileged) customers like himself from Chinese establishments, writing, “excellent Chinese restaurants, in their attempt to appease the masses, end up alienating aficionados and critics.” He recounts an anticipated visit to a reputed Chinese restaurant where he was disappointed by a fish stew’s “swampy and muddy flavors.” If only the 200-item menu had been shorter! Satran juxtaposes this restaurant with Mission Chinese Food, a successful Chinese establishment with only 20 menu items. He claims shorter menus ensure fresh ingredients and expert dish execution, which lead to a higher reputation for restaurants.
Shorter menus will not fundamentally change people’s perception of Chinese cuisine; they will instead estrange Asian customers that they were initially erected to serve and unnecessarily limit restaurants. Satran fails to understand that Chinese restaurants create these lengthy menus — pages stacked with vibrant pictures and a blend of English and Chinese characters — for a reason. These reasons, which can be traced back to the beginning of Chinese immigration in the United States.
The U.S. is currently home to over 40,000 Chinese restaurants. Walk down any busy street and you’ll likely see that one Chinese restaurant. Step further back in history, and we confront the xenophobic origins of this restaurant boom. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which refused admission to Chinese emigrants wanting to enter the U.S., increased anti-immigrant mongering towards Asian people. While this legislative ban refused many Chinese immigrants, a 1915 amendment allowed merchants opening restaurants to legally immigrate. From that point on, the proliferation of Chinese restaurants in America began.
As I walked through the Museum of Food and Drink Chinese restaurant exhibition a little over a year ago, I was struck by the extent to which restaurants played into Chinese stereotypes. Almost all Chinese (or Oriental) restaurants featured ornate dragon sculptures, pagoda roofs, and “Asian” font. This was “otherness” on full display. Americans became drawn to these “exotic” restaurants, which surged in popularity at the turn of the 20th century. Chinese immigrants also started supporting Chinatown restaurants, perhaps out of camaraderie and nostalgia for their community. Despite the racialized portrayal of Chinese culture, Chinese restaurants became establishments that welcomed and served all types of customers.
Menus played a huge role in solidifying Chinese and Chinese American cuisine as an American late-night staple. In the 1900s, Americans preferred milder dishes such as Americanized General Tso’s chicken over the spicier recipes from southern China. These opinions then shaped today’s menu offerings. Since then, General Tso’s chicken and chow mein have populated many Chinese restaurant menus as hallmark “Chinese” dishes. Some twentieth-century restaurants, according to a food exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America, even went so far as to include non-Chinese dishes such as “Roast California Chicken with Currant Jelly” alongside “Fine Cut Chicken Chop Suey” to further appeal to all tastes.
Conflating Chinese dishes with Chinese American cuisine continues today, but many restaurants feel discouraged from narrowing down these options. In an interview with Northeastern’s Ruggles Media, Chinese restaurant owner Xiaoxiong Su said, “It’s suicidal if someone runs a restaurant here without serving General Tso’s chicken because Americans will definitely have questions about this, like: Is this a Chinese restaurant or not?” On the other hand, my Chinese relatives will avoid restaurants that only serve Chinese American dishes. Large menus provide compromises to this cultural dilemma by welcoming all customers to sample a variety of dishes.
Blanket categorizing of Chinese restaurants also blurs the lines between what critics want to change and what’s ultimately unmalleable about Chinese restaurants. The first Chinese restaurants catered to non-Chinese tastes, large Chinese restaurants catered to banquet dinners with relatives, and only recently have modernized Chinese restaurants, with chefs trained at Eurocentric eateries and institutes, achieved the acclaim to the likes of “Restaurant: Impossible” and Joe Satran. Not all Chinese restaurants are created equal. Advocating for small menus reflects the problematic view that assimilating to Westernized aesthetics and preferences is the only path to success.
Cutting down menus in Chinese restaurants is a zero-sum game. If only to please the food aficionados, Chinese restaurants, in attempt to serve only their best dishes, will alienate Westerners customers seeking a nostalgic Chinese American dish and Chinese patrons wanting diverse dishes for a family of 10. Chinese restaurants ultimately have a rich, independent history that need not ascribe to or be evaluated under the standards of restaurants serving Western cuisine.
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