I want to say it was around the mid 2000's. Probably around 2005-2006. Spurred on by cooking and travel shows, the ones where the snooty host goes to differing locations, eats local fare, talks about how America has bastardized it and gotten it wrong, drinks copious amounts of alcohol, and then goes home. (Note: I love Anthony Bourdain, I've read and written about Kitchen Confidential for a couple of classes, but I have to admit, he is the snootiest of snoots)
Wave of Authenticity. Or, that's what I call it. It's been true, especially in America, since the advent of pure political correctness. While it's a fact that most of what Americans eat are watered down versions of their foreign counterparts, it would be obtuse to only think of it as a solely American invention. Go to any MDC (More Developed Country, for you not paying attention in Social Studies) and you will find bastardized versions of food from all over the world. Hint: Try finding good American BBQ outside the US.
Now, this is not to say that true authentic food is bad. No, not in the least. But it is the shame brought upon someone when they announce they went to (insert American-Chinese restaurant name here) in casual conversation and the douche of the group responds with, "That's not Chinese food." Yeah, they're right, it's not true Chinese food; it is, Chinese food influenced by American tastes. As an aside, fuck that douche of the group, tell them to fall down some stairs. But, that doesn't mean that it is a lesser food, compared to Authentic Chinese food, the one with the capital "A."
I use Chinese food as my prime example because, no matter what small town USA you go to, you will find a Chinese restaurant. You might find a tex-mex place, maybe an Italian place (probably Olive Garden), but you will most certainly find a Jade Dragon, Jade Tree, Flying Lotus, or Super China.
Don't feel a sense of entitlement when visiting these kinds of places. Just because their food is not the food you grew up with in a small fisherman village on the coast, doesn't mean you can talk shit. Check your ego at the door, right next to the koi pond. Pull the stick out of your ass, and place it gently, GENTLY, next to your ego. Food is food: regionalized, chopped, sauced, fried, stewed bits of flesh with the occasional veggie.
So, you pull into a new town and have the hankering for something sweet and savory. Some of that good good BBQ Spare Ribs. You're looking through Google, Yelp, driving around staring out the window, whatever, but you're looking for a Chinese place. A good "bad" Chinese place. This means, a place where the food is good, but is a "bad" representation of China and its cuisine. Instead of it being compared to Authentic Chinese cuisine, it gets its own category, and so does every other ethnic Americanized cuisine. (Good "bad" Italian, good "bad" Mexican, and so on) I'm agreeing with the group douche in this instance, but to move the subject forward. Sure, it's not Chinese cuisine, but more of a hybrid. Actually, more of it’s own category. So, just like you wouldn’t go to a fusion restaurant, and stomp on the table when it is not Authentic, again capital "A,” you can’t compare this to Authentic Chinese Cuisine.
Anyways, new to town, good "bad" Chinese, hungry. Here's what you look for in a place:
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should be either in a strip mall, intricate ornate building, or in a refurbished club. If it's in a boring old Bojangles or Popeye's Chicken building, run: run far away.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should have a folding menu that when you unfold it to peruse the millions of options, proceeds to unfurl itself across the lobby and you cannot get it fold back up. Almost like an old school, laminated map.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should have options, options for days. Lunch, dinner, combos, appetizers, buffalo wings, fried rice, soups. If it is a buffet, you've found the Mecca of a good "bad" Chinese restaurant.
- If a good "bad" Chinese restaurant is a buffet, it must have sushi. (I know, not Chinese, but this is what makes it good "bad")
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should be serving chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, maybe some pizza, and other American fare.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should be playing the sounds of smooth music, whether it is smooth jazz, sounds of the ocean, or some OG Authentic Chinese music.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant MUST do takeout. If not, they are too snooty.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant MUST give out fortune cookies at the end of the meal.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should have a koi pond. If it is a buffet, or in a larger space, it MUST have a koi pond.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should have customers in there from all walks of life. Anybody from splattered painters to suited businessmen.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant's decor should be of the softer palette, MUST have either a photo of a Chinese landmark, a hanging lantern, a maneki-neko (that cat you see with the waving hand), some arbitrary Chinese symbols, or a see-through refrigerator filled with soft drinks and beer.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should serve Pepsi products. I don't drink soda, but every good "bad" Chinese place that I've been to, serves Pepsi over Coke. If they serve Coke, then you might be getting a little snooty.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant should have someone of visible Asian descent working there. They don't have to be handling the food, but, they're there to just complete the aesthetic. If there wasn't an Asian person working there it would be like having a Hooters where all of the women are flat chested.
- A good "bad" Chinese restaurant MUST beckon you to come back again. If you ever eat at a good "bad" Chinese place, you would know because you've been there multiple times.
This reads like a checklist, but really isn't a checklist. These are not steadfast rules either. Just some casual observations. Some classifications. But, if you do go to a Chinese place, and see some of these things off the list, then it might be a good "bad" place.