By Linda Loi
"So We Don't End Up Like Chop Suey": Searching for "Authentic"
Chinese Food in L.A.
In 1968, Doris Day made her film, "With Six You Can Get Eggroll,"
a movie whose title reinforces the popular notion that Chinese food is bargain
food. Back then, a evening out with the family at a Chinese restaurant would
probably have cost less than $15.00. Just pick up the kids from school,
head over to the local Chinatown and order the #2 Special. This special
probably included large portions of; egg foo young, chop suey, moo goo gai
pan and egg flower soup. Although only a few actually knew what ingredients
these dishes consisted of, steaming aromas and sizzling sounds usually induced
the consumption of this "authentic" Chinese food. The evening
would finally end with "authentic" complimentary fortune cookies
and lots of to-go boxes.
It has been almost thirty years since this movie and many things have changed.
Chinese restaurants have changed. There have been massive transformations
of menus, locations, and even owners of these establishments. Today's restaurateurs
are not the typical poor immigrant sojourners; today's owners desire more
authenticity within their food and more elegance within their atmosphere.
However, with everything that has changed, some things have remained throughout
the years, the expectations of clienteles. Americans want Chinese food fast,
cheap and they don't want to dress up for it. Moreover, since many Chinese-American
invented dishes like egg foo young, chop suey, and even the Japanese-American
invented fortune cookie have all been associated with "authentic"
Chinese food, deviation from these types of foods have has meant resistance.
Long-established stereotypes helped many small eateries succeed in the past,
but they are causing restaurateurs lots of headaches today. In other words,
no matter how hard today's restaurateurs try to change this image of "cheap"
Chinese, stereotypes are always going to encounter clientele resistance
towards these changes.
Philip Chiang of The Mandarin in Beverly Hills has encountered more than
his share of clientele resistance first hand. "When you try to bring
out new things, there's always resistance from the public," says Chiang.
Since he took over The Mandarin, the Beverly Hills branch of the original
in San Francisco, Chiang has been trying to serve less "Americanized"
food with the sort of casually elegant decor that is his trademark. However,
he has experienced as much opposition as his mother, Cecilia Chiang, did
When Cecilia Chiang opened The Mandarin in San Francisco, she faced a lot
of opposition when she tried to break through the city's established Cantonese
cuisine. She was finally able to serve a different Northern-style cuisine,
Mandarin cuisine. However, even with the eventual acceptance of Mandarin
cuisine, Cecilia still had to make concession to American tastes.
Her son faces the same problem in Los Angeles. "Part of the problem
is that we've got a clientele, which is basically a meat and potatoes crowd,
that's been coming here for 10 years and they have certain expectations,"
he explains. "You can't get too exotic with them, they like what they
know. We hear a lot of 'Well, you're a Chinese restaurant right? You're
supposed to have chow mein.'"
Recently, Chiang wanted to accommodate the ever-changing Asian business
clientele, who have more culinary sophistication than most diners. However,
his desire for "high-style Chinese" produced opposition from all
types of people. There have been complaints about every aspect of change
-- food, price and even atmosphere.
Chiang's most telling example, is the battle over sweet-sour-pork. The Mandarin
has always served the dish of sweet-and-sour pork. Although they are very
proud of its non-greasy and un-fatty version, Chiang was not satisfied with
the "very gloppy, ketchupy, and starchy sort of sauce." At first
he wanted to take it off the menu, but after realizing that it would make
a lot of customers unhappy, he decided to refine the sauce. He stopped using
ketchup and decreased the usage of starch in order to bring out a more authentic
flavor. The result was a frantic panic by customers. "They would call
me over and say, 'What going on here? We liked it the way it was,'"
explains Chiang. After this debacle, he decided to make changes more subtly.
Chiang started making seemingly small changes such as switching form Western-style
broccoli to Chinese broccoli and from string beans to Chinese long beans.
Yet, customers would still gripe about these small changes. "I couldn't
win," sighs Chiang.
The Mandarin and its skilled chefs have worked extra hard so that their
dishes would be accepted as authentic. Americans usually conceive of authentic
Chinese cuisine with dishes such as egg foo young and chop suey. "In
the past, a lot of restaurants were run by unskilled cooks who were just
trying to make a living. They just didn't know or understand the true essence
of Chinese cooking, which abused the cuisine," explains Chiang.
Unlike the unskilled cooks of the past, today's chefs are well educated
in many methods of cooking. They have been influenced by many cuisines of
the world. However, the new, yet authentic, dishes appearing within these
"high-style" Chinese restaurants are being "accused of being
some kind of French nouvelle version of Chinese food," complains Rogness,
The Mandarin's sous-chef. After a glance at The Mandarin's Bairlay scallops,
which is a dish with scallops and fresh pears in a light mustard sauce,
customers assume it to be a French dish.
In the beginning, many Chinese restaurateurs were forced to incorporate
a lot of American ingredients within their dishes in order to survive economically.
As a result, a number of Americanized Chinese dishes were created. Chiang
believes that this food assimilation of the past has contributed to the
loss of "authenticity" within Chinese cuisine. Although Chiang
does not like admitting it, American influence has even impacted his "high-style"
establishment. Just as the immigrant restaurant owners of the past, Chiang
has to cater to an American clientele. Although The Mandarin prides itself
on not promoting "Chinese-Americanized" dishes, its new dishes
do contain American ingredients within them: Miracle Whip for lobster salads,
ketchup for sweet and sour sauce, California wine for orange-tasting dishes,
and iceberg lettuce for Chinese chicken salad. The most positive American
influence, Chiang believes, is the substitution of lighter cooking oils,
like safflower oil, for peanut oil. So even with his overriding desire to
change the stereotypes about Chinese cuisine, Chiang finds himself bound
and restricted because of well-established taste preferences of his American
Along with the image of food, cost is also ingrained in American attitudes
toward Chinese food. The idea of a #2 Special feeding a family of four and
costing only $15 is instilled within the American public. Today, everyone
knows about the decreasing value of the U.S. dollar, but they do not witness
the fresh and even imported goods being delivered to The Mandarin on a daily
bases. Instead of canned vegetables, which keep costs at other restaurants
low, The Mandarin uses quality ingredients to bring out better flavors in
its entrees. "It drives us crazy," says co-owner Serry Osmena.
"Some of our customers happily pay $11.95 for pasta with basil and
olive oil down the street, but they balk at paying $12.50 for a chicken
dish at our restaurant." Apparently, these customers assume that food
ingredients are sold at a discount to Chinese restaurants, while other trendy
establishments pay full price. "We pay $18.00 a pound for crab just
like every other Westside restaurant," complains Robert Rogness, maitre
d' and wine director.
Clientele resistance to the recent changes within The Mandarin has approached
Chiang from all directions. In addition to food and price complaints, customers
have also criticized the shift towards a casual, yet, elegant, atmosphere.
In fact, Chiang can't even escape complaints about his own fashion choices.
After he started wearing Armani suits instead of the traditional tuxedo,
customers went "nuts," exclaims Chiang. It became a minor scandal
which led to a common question of "Philip! What happened to the tux?"
The reason behind Philip's new attire is the same reason behind The Mandarin's
other changes. He wants to create an image which goes beyond the typical
stereotypes of "authentic" and "traditional" Chinese
restaurants. "In Chinatown or Monterey Park, they don't use nice glassware
or silverware, everything is chipped and they even use canned ingredients",
explains Chiang. He believes that these perceptions have instilled the image
that the Chinese run cheap restaurants. Chiang decided that he wanted a
more contemporary decor. "No more red, green and gold, no more Chinese
lanterns, and clean restrooms are an absolute must," exclaims Chiang.
Just as the ingredients within a dish, Chiang made changes in a subtle manner.
It wasn't until a fire destroyed much of the restaurant in 1988 that he
got to make a lot of the changes he wanted. "It was like having a clean
slate, like getting a new restaurant," says Chiang. Only through the
destruction of The Mandarin was he able to break through the many preconceived
barriers about Chinese restaurants.
For Chiang, expanding out from the established image of the cheap, fast
and casual dining image of Chinese restaurants from the past was an accomplishment
that took perseverance, time and, ultimately, a fire. This tragedy that
turned into a blessing demonstrates the power and persistence of stereotypes
but also the impact that new East-West relations have had on defining "authentic"
Chinese food. "We must learn from each other without compromising our
own cultures, so we don't end up like chop suey," concludes Chiang.
(Linda Loi is a junior majoring in Asian American