How to survive an unexpected Chinese carry-out emergency

When it comes to food, I like what I like. I am the sort of person who eventually hones a short list of eateries I enjoy, and only rarely do I deviate from my typical order. I tend to prefer my food to be recognizable and unadorned, and I generally see no reason to forgo something I enjoy in order to take a chance on something new. If I don’t like whatever I’ve ordered instead, it is as if I have willingly doubled my grief – not only have I missed an opportunity to eat something that I already know I like, but I have also committed to eating something I am not crazy about. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a personality trait that is metaphorically applicable to anything else in my life. Please withhold any accusations of shunning new experiences and fearing the unknown, because I assure you that I only feel this way about food.

So on Saturday night, when Mike and I decided to stay in and order Chinese food, I thought nothing of pulling the menu from New Big Wong off of the fridge and dialing in with our typical order. New Big Wong is my place. It is my favorite Chinese carry-out joint in DC. It is the third Chinese carry-out place that I tried, and it has been the standard since. Its food is priced well, imbued with a satisfactory degree of moisture, is not too rubbery, and tastes better than the others. On the not entirely infrequent occasions on which I order Chinese food, I have been delighted by New Big Wong’s reliability and sameness. Just imagine my surprise, then, when the woman on the other line informed me that their driver was on vacation. No delivery, no mercy.

My knee-jerk reaction was that the Chinese food plan had been irrevocably compromised, and we’d have to go back to the dinner plan drawing board. As in, if I couldn’t get exactly the same Chinese food that I’d become accustomed to, then we’d just bike to Chipotle or something. But, even I am willing to admit that is technically whacky. There is no shortage of Chinese restaurants in DC. A small minority of them are even in Chinatown. So, I cracked my mind open a smidgen and plopped down with my laptop.

Here is where methodology gets tricky. How does one zero in on a restaurant? Is it best to trust a food critic, a friend, or random Yelp reviewers? On what criteria might one base these decisions? How could I ensure that the recommendation I take reaches conclusions in the same what that I do? Furthermore, how could I possibly quantify my own preferences in the first place?

I like how New Big Wong tastes. That’s really all I can say. How can I expect Yelp reviewers, or friends, or people who write about eating for a living, to help me now? Can Trish N. from Annandale, Virginia guide me when I cannot guide myself? And, even if our taste receptors function in a basically similar way, is there a way to assure myself of the fact that the cultural components that govern our personal food preferences could possibly be aligned? Does she insist upon ordering chicken friend rice every single time, too?

After grappling with these impossible questions, we settled on Tsim Yung. Our reasons were these: the name sounded slightly more authentic than China Boy, the prices appeared to be low, the website’s graphics were inoffensive, and their menu included our standbys.

It was okay. It was several hairs shy of New Big Wong, but I would not necessarily choose it again. That isn’t a problem, though, because I had an idea.

As it turns out, there is a much better way to determine, predict and account for food preference than scrolling through anonymous reviews. According to this study, our food preference is largely determined by what our mothers ate while pregnant. This cannot be completely true (it is impossible, for example, for my mother to have eaten Chipotle during a pregnancy that occurred seven years before the chain opened,) but it seems to be a reasonable litmus test.

The secret to selecting a new Chinese restaurant, then, is this:

1. Determine your mother’s favorite Chinese restaurant within the months prior to your birth

2. Do your research – are these restaurants still open?

3. If yes, you should probably eat there. I bet you’d like it. What fortune did you get? Just curious. Anyhow, attempt to befriend the chef. Build a rapport, and then try your darndest to obtain an ingredient list and/or complete recipes of your favorite dishes. Are they high in MSG? Are they salty? Are they, like, inundated with water chestnuts? Are you more of a baby corn person? Is it because baby corn is adorable? It is.

4. If no, you have a bit more work to do. First of all, talk this over with your mom. Were her Chinese food preferences during pregnancy a sort of anomaly? Or, did she consume the same kind of Chinese food before and after you were born? If so, this may need to be your point of reference. If you are ambitious, you can research local business records and attempt to unearth information on the former owners. Are they alive? Can you contact them? Are their kids alive? Would they have access to the information on the restaurant’s menu that we mentioned previously? You’ll probably need a back-story. If you casually mention that your research is a strategy to avoid reading Yelp reviews, people might not believe or trust you.

5. Congratulations! Now you have a Chinese food taste baseline by which to determine the local restaurant you are genetically programmed to like. All you have to do now is to visit, call or independently research the menu of all local contenders so as to determine which most closely matches the particularities of the information you have so laboriously acquired. Next time New Big Wong’s driver is on vacation, you’ll be FREAKING READY.

If as you were reading this, you thought to yourself, “my mom never ate Chinese food,” “my mom and I like different sorts of Chinese food,” or “my mom always sort of just ate at whatever restaurant she happened to be near,” then it is very likely that you are adopted. Find your biological mother, follow steps 1 – 5, and try and then tell me with a straight face that you’ll ever use Yelp again.

– A waiting-for-the-driver-to-come-back-but-prepared-if-he-doesn’t Natalie

About Natalie Shure

literature, life and latte lady

2 Responses to “How to survive an unexpected Chinese carry-out emergency”

  1. I am so similar when it comes to food. I’m in Europe right now, Belgium to be exact. The land where good (real) cheese and freshly baked bread are plentiful and available just around the corner at the local bakery (well the bread anyway…and it’s literally just around the corner). And yet, with 3 months to go, all I can think of is the places I want to eat when I get back to Canada. There is this Chinese take-out place in the food court of a mall near where I live (in Canada). I always get the same thing when I go there (I might change up the chicken or just add an extra item, but basically the same) and I will even drive the 20-25 minutes to the mall if I have a craving for Chinese rather than chance some place closer. Here whenever we get Chinese the rice is always really dry…I just want some noodles. Thank goodness I don’t have to order it! Ordering Chinese in French? I can barely do it in English!

    I will try something new if it fits into my ‘comfort food’ category. Here they’ve been making me try some other new things like Foie Gras (I will *never* like duck liver) and goat cheese (blech >_<), but for the most part I'm still timid. They say that food is the hardest thing to get used to in a different country/culture and I totally agree!

    Great post btw.


  1. Philippine Restaurants - 2011/10/05

    sick of having chicken for dinner…

    I’m actually so sick of having chicken for dinner like every night. I wish my sister knew how to cook chinese food :(…

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