There's a discussion about Chinese cuisine in NYC with Ruth Reichl at egullet.org. An excerpt:
...after living in California, it's hard to get very excited about Chinese food in New York. We just don't have the kind of monied, sophisticated Chinese eaters who support great restaurants. So it's hard for me to get really enthusiastic about local Chinese restaurants. They just don't have the same quality as those on the other coast - or those in Canada - where most of the big Chinese money resides.
Of course, she talks about the Chinese food in NYC that she does love, but this is an interesting point. As I've rarely eaten Chinese food in California (I have eaten Chinese food in Taiwan but I don't remember enough to wax poetic about it), I can't compare it versus NYC, but I'm under the impression that Manhattan's Chinatown is...one of the lesser refined Chinatowns, to put it mildly. In response to a question about people taking Chinese cuisine more seriously, she says:
Basically, Americans are racist about Chinese food. We just don't think it should be as expensive as western food. When my friend Bruce Cost had a great Chinese restaurant in SF, one of the reviews actually said, "What makes him think we should pay as much for Chinese as French food?" And he was buying from the same purveyors as Chez Panisse.
But this will change, and I suspect very soon. As the Chinese become increasingly dominant in the world - which they are, and will be - our attitude about their cuisine will change. Today the great Chinese chefs all stay in Asia, where they're paid better and get respect. Why should they come here? But as we go there, and taste their food, we'll start to give it hte respect it deserves.
Another thing, of course, is that the esthetics of Chinese restaurants are completely different than those of Western places. And we'll have to get used to that. The most expensive restaurant I've ever been to was in Hong Kong - and it was bright, loud, cold, no romance at all. But the food!!
I too look at Chinese food as something that should be cheap. However, I'm thinking of...cheap chinese food. If I thought the Chinese food were as "good" (a bad word to use, as it has so many meanings, but I'm thinking in terms of ingredients, techniques, presentation, taste, blah blah) as the sophisticated French food, I'd pay for it.
Then again, I've developed an idea of what counts as worthwhile expensive food while growing up in America, an idea that Chinese food hasn't entered into. Perhaps I've been eating the wrong food? Even in Taiwan, the most expensive food I ate wasn't Chinese, although it may have been Asian-influenced. I recall the great Chinese (I'm using Chinese to refer to Taiwanese food also, and while they're surely not exactly the same, I don't know enough about Taiwanese cuisine to talk about it separately) food stalls in the alleyways and the dingy hole-in-the-wall restaurants with great, simple, super-cheap food. Beef noodle soup was a favorite of mine (but absolutely no tendons, blech).
As for the more espensive places I ate at, I think they were mainly buffets. Taipei has loads of buffets (I guess we like to eat a lot, ahem) but they aren't like the cookie-cutter Chinese buffets you find in America. Is there a reason that we don't have more "nice" buffets in America, or at least New York City? I used to love going to the buffets in hotels and department stores in Taipei, in particular (before I lived there) at the Asiaworld Hotel (which also has its own ginormous department store; yup, we just like to eat, shop, and sleep) and this other hotel, either called Henry or had a restaurant with that name. There were other places but I don't remember them as well. Obviously, a buffet in Taiwan wouldn't have Chinese-American food like...er, here, but there was definitely a difference. I recall there being few buffets at the Far Eastern Plaza. Good. Stuff.
I should probably add that I have been to the cheaper, mainly Chinese food buffets in Taiwan. Nothing against them, of course. Good stuff. I can't believe I wasn't fatter when I lived in Taiwan about eight years ago. (You may think I'm rather normal-sized now, but at the time I was "the chubby one" amongst my friends, who I swear all look generally the same today as they did back then. Even though I gained minimal height, I must have added 10-15 pounds to my frame since moving back here.)
...Yeah, I haven't eaten much good Chinese food in my life, have I? I'm really not a fan of Chinese restaurant aesthetics; what's up with them? Does anyone like eating while surrounded by garish decorations? My assumption is yes, although I don't know who these people are. However, if a Chinese restaurant didn't look that way, but say, more Japanese or European, it wouldn't feel very Chinese. Maybe. Not that it would matter if the food is good.
There's one, very distinct memory of eating Chinese food in Taiwan that has been lodged in my brain ever since I was 7 (or somewhere around that age). My mum and I took a trip to Taiwan, which largely consisted of traveling with a western sightseeing tour group. At one location while walking around a mountainous region (of course, I don't remember where it was but it was beautiful, rocky, high cliffs, greenery, nature, which I don't think much of these days) we ate lunch at a small noodle stand run by one woman. It was just there, out in the open near the entrance of one of the long, narrow bridges that traversed the cliffs. The seats and the tables were made of beautiful, ultra-smooth, polished black stone (I can almost recall running my fingers along the table's surface, which is kind of freaky). We ate our noodle soups out of plastic bowls--orange, I think. I don't remember what the food was like but I think I finished it and I'm sure it was good. I suppose that memory is more about the environment than the food itself but ...there. That was random.
This entry was a total brain splodge. I still haven't formulated responses to all the great food blog comments you guys left. [Should do that! Now!]