The Art of Chinese Delivery (aka The Greasy Chopstick)

I am sure many of you were like me this past Friday night.

The explosion of thunderstorms, lightning, and rain coupled with an exhausting work week left me glued to the couch with no plan of leaving the comfort of my apartment. But dinner! I was ravenous and we had only veggie burgers and canned tuna in the kitchen.

Nights like this I yearn for delivery Chinese food. Nothing glamorous. Just some tasty, brown-sauced, cheap eats. It may sound scandalous, but I crave Hot and Sour Soup, Moo Shu Shrimp, and an eggroll like it is nobody’s business. You know what, though? Ever since I moved to Philadelphia, I have not been able to find a good delivery Chinese food restaurant.

To be fair, there are many amazing Asian restaurants in this city. And, topping that list are some outstanding examples of Chinese cuisine. Han Dynasty, for one, was consistently on Yelp.com’s “Best of” for the first two years I lived in Philadelphia. And, prior to moving to Philadelphia, I never had Dim Sum available to me. I was living vicariously through movies like Working Girl when Melanie Griffith pushes the cart around getting steam in her hair-sprayed mane. Joy Tsin Lau and Ocean City have fulfilled that fantasy for me over and over again. Furthermore, for our first anniversary, my beau and I went to Buddakan and I still dream about their black miso cod. Out of control delicious! In short, this is not about a lack of good Chinese food. It is about the drastic drop-off in quality (and edibility) of the corner, neighborhood, we-don’t-have-seating Chinese food delivery joint. On a rainy night, I am not interested in any Steven Star restaurant. What I am looking for is a greasy spoon with fortune cookies at the end.

Working Girl, 1988.

You may be wondering what a discussion about food is doing on an art blog. This is, at its essence, a discussion of lowbrow vs. highbrow, and the implications of the argument, I am sure, can be adapted to any worthy cultural cause. If we accept only the worst from our lowbrow options, does that mean all good stuff has to come with a hefty price tag?  Shouldn’t we care about the lowbrow options with as much passion as the high?  Or even more?  I will definitely eat more Chinese delivery than I will ever eat Buddakan.

I am from Providence, Rhode Island, a city known for having a good restaurant scene. But it still has nothing on Philadelphia. This city has ruined many of my favorite restaurants back home because they cannot stack up to what I so easily acquire here.

Hence, the delivery Chinese food situation stands out to me as a giant outlier. Even in the suburbs of East Bumblef*ck, the delivery Chinese food is hands and feet above that of Philadelphia. What gives?

Ours is the age of foodies, locavores, and Bill-Clinton-Vegans. No one is paying attention to the corner Chinese food restaurant. And the owners of these places are getting away with culinary murder while we stand around like a bunch of no wits. The restaurant that answered our call on Friday night got consistent 4s and 5s from yelp.com as Fishtown’s best delivery option. If that was the best, ya’all has some explaining to do. Our soup was as thick as a Jell-O Jiggler. I still cringe when I think about it.

There is an art to ordering this kind of Chinese food. Please do not misunderstand me and think I am some amateur at this game. The rules are simple. Save your desire for fresh fish for another night. Keep the proteins simple: chicken, beef, pork, and bean-curd. If you trust the place, order shrimp. You want your appetizers fried and crispy, your soups hot and peppery, your rice white and sticky, and your mains covered in a multitude of brown sauces. Oyster, Garlic, Hunan, General Tsao’s, Lobster, or even Strange Flavor, whatever the name of the sauce, you should expect it to be brown. If you’re looking for something different, you are going to be disappointed. In many ways, the Greasy Chopstick is a totally different cuisine than real authentic Chinese food and any strategy for ordering must acknowledge this.

Yes, we’re calling a spade a spade–delivery Chinese is some weird, ugly stepsister to the variety the Han Dynasties of the world serve. Nonetheless, it has its place at the table, too. But we, as patrons of the greater menued world, should be able to acknowledge the two without getting the cold shoulder from the culinary elite. If we’re not saying they’re on the same level, can’t we still judge and require more from the delivery version? Would the culturati deem this rant inoffensive if delivery Chinese were spelled without a capital C? This is not food from an ancient, honored culture. It is what is served in a shopping mall on plastic trays. But it is still served and we order it.

In doing some research for this rant, the only article on the subject I could find was from The Atlantic. In the Dos and Don’ts of Ordering Chinese, Andrew Coe gives the reader advice for an authentic Chinese experience.

When you enter a restaurant, sit down at a table, and pick up the menu, you begin to send out signals about what kind of meal you expect. In this country’s Chinese restaurants, the staff has inherited more than a century of traditions about what Americans want at the table, from tableware, to flavors, to a couple of fortune cookies with the check at the end. If you don’t speak Chinese but still want to break those old habits, the most effective strategy is to send signals that you expect a Chinese, not Chinese-American, meal.

How do you send the opposite signal over the phone? Or, more specifically, how do you send the opposite signal while maintaining the standard message “I don’t want to have to cut my soup with a knife and I’d like to taste something when I bite into my lo mein, not just feel the oil slick?” Just what signals have Philadelphians been giving these delivery joints? If we consistently put up with this schlock, no wonder the situation has gotten so stale, wilted, and stagnant.

If Philadelphians don’t demand a higher craft for their delivery Chinese, improvement will never happen.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, my older brother gave me the advice “if the sign says both ‘Chinese Food’ and ‘Fried Chicken,’ neither are going to be any good.” I don’t know about you, but it seems like the vast majority of Chinese places have that exact sign above their doors. Are we just doomed?

I say no, but the onus is on us. We cannot just review and critique the upper echelon of what this city has to offer, be that music, art, fashion, dance, or food. If we forget to yelp, blog, and criticize the everyman restaurants in our town, I can guarantee we will be sitting on our couches this rainstorm and the next eating frozen veggie burgers with dry canned tuna on top. And I, for one, can’t swallow that scenario.

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