New rating system gives food for thought

Updated: 2013-04-19 11:44

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

For some non-Chinese foodies and tourists, the name Joe Soong has as much clout as the Michelin Guide in finding authentic Chinese food in San Gabriel Valley, widely considered to be the new Chinatown of Los Angeles.

Soong, a Chinese American, has created an informal rating system for determining whether a restaurant is worth a try.

"I just want to help non-Chinese friends find out if an establishment is a legitimate purveyor of genuine Chinese cuisine," he said on Alhambra Source, a local community news website. Soong, who has been an Alhambra resident for more than 15 years and works in local government in labor relations, said that he developed the system after fielding requests for restaurant recommendations from friends.

He had noticed a dearth of authentic Chinese food in US restaurants. For example, many Chinese cities serve California beef ramen, a delicacy he has never found in California.

Conversely, US Chinatowns recommend dishes like Montgomery beef, a cuisine he had never heard of in China.

"In Chinatown restaurants, so many Americans order sweet and sour pork, and so-called Kung Pao Chicken without peanuts," he said. "In China, I would refuse to pay the bill if I was served those dishes, because they are not real Chinese food."

He has been happy to find a variety of Chinese offerings in San Gabriel Valley, he said. Using his informal system, restaurants display a letter grade in their front windows:

"A" stands for "Americanized," which means that it is not real Chinese food but is a provider with Americanized Chinese entrees. Most of the restaurant clientele are not Chinese in such restaurants, but non-Chinese speakers will enjoy easy-to-decipher menus showing the components of every dish. Waiters will generally speak fluent English.

"B" stands for "better," but still falls short of traditional Chinese food.

"C" means "Chinese." It's your best choice for authentic Chinese food, but prepare for a difficult menu that might not make sense to non-native speakers. Waiters' English language skills might be lacking, and as a non-Chinese speaker, you should be prepared to sit among Chinese clientele who speak different Chinese dialects - and loud, he said.

"This is very funny, and quite true! I have not been to many 'A' Chinese restaurants. Go for the C restaurants, everyone! " a local citizen named Emily said.

"There's a difference in big and small Chinese restaurants, and there are even separate words for them," she said. "Big restaurants are more of the equivalent of eating out for Westerners, but it is common to go often to a small restaurant for food. Not as much in the Western-established ones, though."

Of course, for many Americans, "A" restaurants will continue to be the preference.

"Anyone who has eaten out extensively in town should recognize this as a humor piece," Brett Moorover said on Alhambra Source.

This plays on the fears of non-Chinese diners, who might balk at reading a menu with the words "Enjoy the braised pork spleen", he said with a laugh.

It can feel uncomfortable when a "C" restaurant waiter "looks at you like you are an idiot when you ask him if he can take the chicken out of the Kung Pao Chicken because you are a vegetarian", he said.

"The whole concept of authentic is a tricky one. What does it mean to be authentic? And who gets to determine authenticity? I suggest everyone do away with the authenticity test and just eat whatever tastes good to you. There's room for everyone in the big tent of Chinese food," he said.