When I first set out to write this column, I was thinking how clever and unexpected it would be to write about Chinese takeout. After all, this time of year is all about homemade feasts of hams, turkeys, and roasts – not takeout containers of fried rice, General Tso’s chicken, and lo mein.
“How edgy I’ll be,” I thought. There was at least some precedent for the timing: “A Christmas Story” has a scene in a Chinese restaurant (though that scene happens to be rather offensive), and Chinese takeout on Christmas has become a pretty standard ritual for American Jews. (See: Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s comments during her 2010 confirmation hearing.).
I got together with a friend and grabbed some takeout from Golden Wok, our neighborhood Chinese restaurant. See, Chinese takeout has always been a go-to comfort food. It’s made appearances after traumatic experiences in my life—organic chemistry exams, breakups, car accidents, and “Game of Thrones” season finales—and after a weekend full of holiday parties, my friend and I were both in need of some comfort.
We ordered the Eight Treasure Chicken (with mushrooms, baby corn, onions, celery, water chestnuts, peas, and carrots in a brown sauce, topped with cashews and almonds); Singapore rice noodles (stir-fried with curry powder, shrimp, chicken, and vegetables); cheese fried wontons; and a couple of egg rolls.
Contrary to the eye rolls of foodies, our order wasn’t bad. The Eight Treasure Chicken was maybe a little too saucy and too sweet, but all the ingredients had some crunch or bite—enough to elevate it above your bog standard meat-in-a-sauce formula. The noodles, on the other hand, had a nice al dente texture and some punch from the curry. The fried bits – the wontons and the egg rolls – were about as you’d expect: crunchy and fried. I thought the egg roll filling could have used a bit more definition (it seemed to be mostly mushy cabbage). All in all, a perfectly adequate takeout experience.
As we sat munching, I began thinking how my original angle – Chinese food during the Christmas season! – was really just a shallow gimmick. It played into this cultural milieu that dismisses takeout: It’s usually the punch line for a cultural stereotype, or conversely derided as “inauthentic.”
Despite that, something more substantial has to be at work. How else do you explain 45 hits on Yelp for “Chinese takeout” in a city the size of Greenville?
No, you’re not going to get the most culturally authentic Chinese food, though the Singapore rice noodles I had were certainly passable. You also shouldn’t expect a life-changing culinary experience.
Ultimately, I think the appeal of Chinese takeout can be boiled down to the reason my friend and I ordered from Golden Wok: It was in our neighborhood. That is, Chinese takeout is thoroughly a part of the American food landscape – as much as a neighborhood pizza parlor or diner.
The unfortunate thing is that, with ethnic food, we’ve come to expect amazingly authentic hole-in-the-walls, or elevated and refined concepts. There’s no recognition or space for food that’s simply dependable and convenient – the fare you eat in between meals at Michelin-starred restaurants. But maybe there should be – especially when we’re all exhausted from planning, preparing, and indulging in these holiday feasts.
1340 N Pleasantburg Drive, Greenville
Eight Treasure Chicken: $8.50
Singapore Rice Noodles: $8.95
Eggrolls: $1.30 each
Wontons: $3.95 for six
Andrew Huang is the senior editor of TOWN Magazine. Follow his food misadventures on Twitter and Instagram at @rooftoptales and #huangry.