For nearly three years, I was a weekly customer of the Hunan Palace Chinese buffet one block from where I work. Week in, week out, I would sit in a booth with a book, they would bring me a Diet Coke and a fork, and I would have my two plates of egg rolls and scallion pancakes, rice and General Tso's. I read dozens of different books over the years while eating the same six or seven reliable dishes, all basically diced meat in gooey brown sauce. Three weeks ago at lunch hour, I found myself in front of a closed door with a sign that read: "We Are Close." That sign's still there, and I've finally, painfully brought myself to realize they meant to spell "close" with a "d."
Of course, Chinese-American food isn't Chinese food, as I have often heard, if not personally discovered. As I ate lunch today at the other Chinese buffet near my office -- sometimes I think that I'm a bigamist, and sometimes that I shouldn't take brand loyalty quite so seriously -- I started reading Nicole Mones' surprisingly affecting novel The Last Chinese Chef, the first time I've ever read about a cuisine while eating it. Structurally, it's chick-lit about a widow and food critic whose late husband's past leads her on an eye-opening trip to China; in reality, it's a love letter to traditional Chinese food. As I ate my habitual, declasse egg rolls and pepper steak, I learned words like xian, natural flavor, and xiang, fragrant flavor; cui, crispy, and ruan, velvety softness. I was violating all the precepts of Chinese food as I read about them: it's all about balance, which my salty, oily, gooey food did not possess, and all about community, which my table for one could not provide.
The more I read -- and began sympathetically rooting for the woman to get over her dead husband, who cheated on her and didn't deserve her anyway -- the more I realized that what I was eating had nothing to do with what I was reading. There is no xian in an egg roll, a type of food marketed to Americans' unsophisticated palettes, whose ubiquity, perversely, has come to be so identified with Chinese food as a whole that haute Chinoise cuisine simply doesn't exist in this country. My weekly addiction to Mongolian beef is helping to bar gourmet Chinese from gaining a foothold in America. Despite one billion mouths and thousands of years of written tradition, the spread of Chinese foodie culture is a casualty of a failure of the American imagination, blocked by Chinese-Americans' success at selling food to the lowest common denominator.
New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee proposes that the Chinese food I've been eating each week is innately American -- after all, most Americans eat it more often than apple pie, and what's more American than that? -- and more closely identified with American Jews than traditional Eastern European Jewish food. I certainly live in accordance with both stereotypes. And few things make me hungrier than reading. As I read, my mouth watered for the food I wasn't eating, for the food my habits and infantile tastebuds had barred from America, for the food that had melted in the mouths of Emperors for millenia.
Maybe I had the wrong idea about Hunan Palace from the beginning. They've changed chefs two or three times since I started going, with a barely perceptible change in the quality or variety; they've already been shut down once for failing a heath inspection. Maybe they grew tired of churning out the same crowd-pleasing mediocrities week after week, month after month, surrounded by drab yellow walls, the usual Tsingtao advertisements, and paper zodiac placemats, with little to show for it but a steady flow of distracted Blackberrying Americans on lunch break. Maybe they wanted more.
And maybe they decided to try to turn their hovel into a true palace, an unlikely home for dishes more exotic than Peking Duck, for trompe l'oeils that balance xian and xiang, cui and ruan. Maybe they want, finally, to transport their eaters to China, rather than the other way around, to recreate one of the proud restaurants that Lee and Mones have written about. Maybe they want to drop Chinese-American food for Chinese-Chinese food. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Maybe that's why the sign's still there. I hope they're close.
Follow Alex Remington on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alexremington