The Myth of Chinese Restaurants, Parts One & Two

May 12, 2009 at 5:32 am 6 comments

Faux-terracotta horse, PF Chang's

Faux-terracotta horse, PF Chang's

Part One

My mother-in-law loves PF Chang’s so we took her there this weekend for Mother’s Day. I’m not really complaining since it beats the hippie breakfast place we usually go to, where the food is stuck in an aryuvedic-lite 1970s time warp without spice, garlic, butter or anything else that makes food worth eating. But since we live in the Bay Area, where there are a plethora of outstanding Chinese eateries of every stripe and price point, it seems a bit odd to me to willingly frequent a place like PF Chang’s. However, my mother-in-law is eighty and she isn’t Chinese or a very adventuresome eater so to take her to, say, Fook Yuen or Koi Palace for shark fin soup and sea cucumber would probably be a wasted effort. Hell, I don’t even like sea cucumber and as far as I know I’m full-blooded Chinese.

Miley & buddies show their cultural sensitivity

Miley & buddies show their cultural sensitivity

Amusingly enough, PF Chang’s seems to be a favorite of idiotic teen idol Miley Cyrus, who held the afterparty for the premiere of her recent Hannah Montana flick at a Los Angeles Chang’s and who takes her boytoys to the one in Burbank as well. However, Miley’s a fickle customer, recently claiming on Jay Leno’s show that the wonton soup at Chang’s tasted like soap. Maybe some of the kitchen help were staging a bit of payback for Cyrus infamously pulling the “chink eye” a few months back?

Anyways, I’m sure if I were in some part of the world where Chinese people and our accompanying restaurants were few and far between, I might swoon for the sight of PF Chang’s. The menu actually does include some decent dishes and the tea selection isn’t bad. It’s not unlike the drive-thru Starbucks on the interstate—you wouldn’t normally be caught dead inside a ‘Bucks in a coffee-snob-land like San Francisco but when you come across one in the vast wasteland of Highway 5, you’re damn grateful for that mocha frappuccino. Likewise, if I were in the middle of non-Asian America and really wanted a plate of potstickers and some passable dandan noodles, I’d be more than happy to eat at PF Chang’s. But I’m also pretty glad that I don’t have to do that very often, since I live in the heart of Chinese restaurant heaven—now if only I could get my mother-in-law to like fatty pork and bitter melon.

39 million pounds a year sold, Orange Chicken, Panda Express

39 million pounds a year sold, Orange Chicken, Panda Express

Part Two

I had a brush with the legend of another famous quasi-Chinese restaurant when I was in Southern California last week for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which was kind enough to screen my latest short experimental video, Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male. I stayed with my pal Gary, whom I’ve known for a couple decades since our misadventures as grad students at the Art Institute in Chicago. Gary wisely dropped out after a semester and eventually moved to LA, where he’s now working in television as a 1st AD and producer. His most recent assignment was interviewing the divine Hugh Jackman, whom Gary confirmed was both astoundingly hot and extremely nice as a person.

Anyways, Gary told me that Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the founders of Panda Express, owned a townhouse in the very same complex that I was now visiting and that, up until recently, one of the Cherng’s daughters had lived in the unit. One day a couple years ago Gary came home to find his street clogged with police cruisers—apparently Mr. Cherng had been by to visit and had surprised a couple kidnappers in the midst of abducting his daughter. Luckily the fiftysomething Cherng had managed to fight off the perps and save his daughter from an evil fate.

Paul Muni, non-Chinese, The Good Earth, 1937

Paul Muni, non-Chinese, The Good Earth, 1937

Soon after that the daughter moved out, but Gary thinks the Cherngs might have kept the place as a rental property, despite having a net worth in the millions (the Panda Express in Honolulu brings in $4 million annually). Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. My dad always told me that real estate is the best type of investment (thank god he didn’t live to see the subprime meltdown), and didn’t the husband in The Good Earth keep ranting about the significance of “the land” all the time? Maybe the Cherngs are just hedging their bets in case some disaster befalls their fast food empire someday.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Oliver Wang  |  May 12, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    This may be apocryphal but I’ve heard that one reason why PF Chang has had trouble getting actual Chinese people to eat there is because the faux-terra cotta statues they have out front are equivalent (in Western culture) to putting tombstones at the entrance of your restaurant.

    Reply
    • 2. valeriesoe  |  May 12, 2009 at 4:51 pm

      Totally believable—my mom still freaks out when I stick the chopsticks in my rice bowl standing up as it’s supposed to be sign of death. And don’t get me started on the number four.

      Reply
  • 3. duriandave  |  May 12, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Hi V.,

    I wish I could say I’ve never eaten at PF Chang’s and Panda Express, but I have (once and twice respectively). Like any chain restaurant, they are safe, predictable, and unbiquitous, which I guess is appealing to most people.

    Speaking of Starbucks, I always go there whenever I am in Hong Kong. Not just because it’s a familiar and cozy place to hang out, but also because they actually provided real, whole cream to put in your coffee. No half-and-half. No whole. No low fat. Just 100% creamy goodness!

    The other thing I tend to do when I travel to Asia is visit McDonalds to sample such local specialties as taro pie or mango-dipped ice cream cone.

    BTW, congrats on your new film. I hope to see it some time. :)

    Reply
  • 4. mrpoopypants  |  May 15, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    The thing about these “chinese” restaurants is the huge amount of sugar they put in all the dishes.

    I think the statues are trying to leverage the terra cotta warriors that toured a few years ago. Plus oversized things work with the scale of the big shopping centers these types of places are usually sited. Drama equals inter-food-tainment.

    Changs is chinese equivalent of the Rain Forest Cafe.

    Reply
  • 5. shoyuzine  |  July 21, 2009 at 2:37 am

    i recently went to a PFchang’s in seattle, and there were some empty seats at the bar..two white girls were sitting there and they vacated the choice seating. when my friend and i got to those seats, the bar server said no seating allowed in those seats. as we were the only asiatics there…we stood back and waited another 25min for some seats. some more white folks came up and sat in those seats. we found seats down from the Forbidden for Asians zone and ordered 2 dishes, they never came we waited 30min. waiters came and left= no one cared to listen to our questions about our food. we were ignored. so after waiting for a grand total of 1 hr (standing and sitting) we left. we ended up at Johnny Rocket’s and were served promptly. PF Chang’s sucks.

    Reply
  • 6. Kent  |  December 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    PF Chang food suck big time. Don’t waste your time . The food is not even fit for Dogs

    Reply

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