What To Look Out For At Chinese Take-Out Restaurants
Origins of Sweet & Sour Chicken
Sweet & Sour Chicken is actually NOT originally made in China. It was first thought up by Westerners to put with fried, breaded chicken. The recipe was based off of the original recipe on Sweet and Sour Pork, which was essentially the same thing, but the sauce was cooked with the pork (which was very lightly breaded), and served as an entrée. However, the concept became so popular, and the cost for chicken being far lower than pork, it became a more regular part of Chinese restaurants as an inexpensive, but delectable appetizer. Only full, gourmet-style restaurants still serve it as an actual entrée.
Sweet & Sour Chicken
Almost everyone's favourite appetizer from Chinese take-out. However, not every place makes it the same, and some to the point where it's VERY unhealthy. The first thing you want to look for is the BREADING. The biggest problem with many SnS Chicken sold is that most of them are more than 50% breading. I've seen many restaurants (all of which have closed down) that have had their SnS Chicken almost 80% breading, and barely any meat.
The second thing you want to look out for is DRYNESS. SnS Chicken is commonly fried for too long, removing the chicken's moisture, and ultimately, its flavour, not to mention all you'll taste is the breading, if it's not entirely turned to wood. Overly dry SnS Chicken also becomes a burden on your jaw, and tires your muscles trying to chew it up.
Finally, there's the sauce. A proper Sweet & Sour Sauce, when finished has a rich, but light red colour. It's mildly thick, and has the zing of a pineapple (as it is a proper ingredient). The orange stuff you get in packets (and fast food restaurants like McD's) are made more sweet and less sour, plus has poor substitutes and preservatives that can give you some toilet issues later.
Gourmet S&S Chicken Entree
One Dish Doesn't Define The Restaurant
Just because one dish isn't cooked well, doesn't mean that the restaurant is terrible. There are many places that cook one dish better than others, so don't be fast to judge your local Chinese take-out based on one bad dish.
For instance: About 2 miles from my home, there is a Chinese take-out that has the best egg rolls and S&S Chicken in southern Maine, but I travel an extra 18 miles just to get better BBQ Pork and Lo Mein.
Since we go to take-outs to bring food home, there's no reason you can't go to multiple places to compile the perfect meal for your family.
Arguably the most popular, but actually just most well-known. This one is the most night and day dish you'll ever see. Not only that, it's the most ruined with people who are either inexperienced or trying to skim on quality to save a few bucks.
First off, if it's red all the way through, throw it away. This is the biggest mistake with many Chinese take-outs. The meat is overcooked, lean and becomes devoid of flavour. In fact, with BBQ Pork that looks like this, all you're actually tasting is the sauce. The meat itself tastes like cardboard, and even chews like it.
The next thing that many restaurants have problems with, is that they only use lean meat. While it may seem like a healthier alternative, it mostly results in the above problem. On top of that, the taste of the meat won't meld as well with the sauce, and tends to have a bad after-taste.
Tenderness is also a big thing to look for. If the meat's not tender, it's no good. Mix this with the saturation of sauce, and you'll know true quality. In fact, you'll know it's good when you see it in a large piece. When cooked properly, a genuinely well-made BBQ pork is cooked as one large piece after having marinated in a well-made sauce. When ordered, it is then sliced into the familiar shape we're used to. It is perfectly tender with some fat, adding to the texture and flavour that mixes perfectly with the sauce that makes only the outer 1-2 cm red.
True BBQ Pork
Your Dinner Uncut
Mini-Egg Rolls are also quite popular, and seen the most in Chinese buffets. These little buggers were actually made for children and poor communities. Unlike the full-sized ones, they use a thinner wrap that is also made with different ingredients. These little bites are made with specialty flavours to emphasize one kind of ingredient. Because of the different type of pastry used for the wrap, using 1 type of ingredient does not degrade the experience, but rather the single ingredient's flavours are enhanced by the wrap.
The most recognized back in the 90's, the Egg Roll is still one of the biggest Chinese take-out foods sold on a regular basis. It's also the most wasted, and ends up in the garbage can. So what makes a good Egg Roll? Well, everything. The Egg Roll is all about balancing many ingredients together to make a dish wrapped into pastry.
Now the biggest thing that differs between "I don't know what I'm doing" to everyone else is the Wrap. Many inexperienced (or apathetic) chefs make the wrapping too thick. Another one is that many under or overcook it. How do you find out? If the wrap feels soft, it's undercooked, and if it won't crackle when you bite into it (or is solid as a rock), it's overcooked.
Ingredients are another thing. Many restaurants tend to skim on money by having less meat in the Egg Roll (or less green veggies for the Vegetarian Egg Rolls). The proper mix of even amounts of all ingredients are essential to getting the best taste out of an Egg Roll. Otherwise, it tastes, as most children would say, "Yucky!"
Regular Egg Rolls
This is more commonly found in Chinese BBQ Take-out restaurants in larger cities, but always beware of the Roast Duck. It is truly a delicacy in terms of how it's prepared, and there are still restaurants that cut corners that ruin the food, despite the low number of places that serve it.
Unlike the other dishes above, Chinese Roast Duck only has 2 flaws ever in its preparation. The first is overcooking it. Due to one reason or another, many Chinese Take-outs tend to overcook the Roast Duck, and it ends up exceptionally dry, and you feel like you're eating flaked charcoal, and the meat is extremely tough to even bite into.
The other flaw in cooking is the used sauces in the duck itself. A Roast Duck is suspended while cooking, and is filled with a special sauce prior to being hung in the oven. The sauce is then absorbed into the meat, and mixes with the natural fats and juices. The sauce also helps keep moisture within the fowl itself. After cooking is finished, this sauce is then drained. Some cooks forget to drain this sauce, while others tend to mess up an ingredient or don't seal the duck well enough that it drains while cooking.
Over-saturated duck falls apart, and tastes like you swallowed a vat of oil. Ducks that lack proper sauces or lacked sauce, usually end up overcooked.
This is one dish that is one of the tastiest you can ever get at a Chinese Take-Out. Though common in larger cities, the Chinese Roast Pork is one of the greatest snacks or appetizers you'll ever have.
Instead of getting into what can go wrong, this section will just list what the perfect one should be like. Because there are way too many things that CAN go wrong.
- Skin is perfectly crispy, not too hard, not too soft. It should crackle when you bite into it, yet give you no resistance.
- Mildly fatty between the meat and the skin.
- Juicy and tender
- Freshly sliced
- Meat and fat should be light, and not too dark (even the dark meat is fairly light)
- Naturally gives off its aroma. (no wafting or sticking your head in required)
- Lightly spiced to compliment the pork's natural flavours.
Obviously a favourite, but very NOT Chinese. It's simple, but some take-outs still have a problem cooking them right. Mainly, they tend to be overcooked, ending up dry and tasteless. Your best bet for a good experience is to find the restaurants that give you thick and wide cuts.
Another extremely popular and delicious item from your favourite Chinese take-outs. This fried treat is commonly seen with S&S Chicken, and also combines with a few others to make the popular "Pu Pu Platter". Crab Rangoon, though simple in its recipe, has been flopped a lot by some take-outs. If you see any of the following, you might want to try a different location's version of the food.
One of the most common screw ups in American take-outs is that the paste in the middle has too much cream cheese, or not enough crab meat. There's argument about real, substitute and canned crab meat, but we all know the difference in those. But to make a proper Crab Rangoon, you need the properly prepared paste.
The next most common screw up you'll find happens around the world, not enough paste. Many restaurants, especially during busy hours, tend to put a bit less paste than they're supposed to, or are skimming on costs. No matter how well it was made, the paste can still be easily overtaken by the bland, fried wrap.
Another flaw is more commonly found at buffets and places that serve smaller versions of the Crab Rangoon. This flaw is that they're not completely closed and sealed when they were cooked. The paste ends up partially sticking out, creating a meringue-like piece that ruins the taste of the food, as well as, tending to poke at your gums and getting between your gums.
Always be sure to see how they are made, and to check for consistencies. Keep in mind what makes a bad Crab Rangoon, and you'll be able to see who does it right.
Regular Crab Rangoons
Egg Foo Young
One of the most filling and delicious entrees you can find on the menu. Many are turned off by how it looks, but don't be fooled. Everybody makes a delicious Egg Foo Young, but not all of them make a good sauce. Egg Foo Young is eaten with white rice and a special sauce. The meal itself is based on the perfect, harmonious flavour these 3 parts make.
There are 2 things to always watch out for, and you can even sometimes ask. The first is spices. Many places put too much spice in the sauce, turning it into a hot sauce rather than a flavouring sauce. The second thing is that some take-outs replace the traditional freshly squeezed tomato juice with Ketchup. The usage of Ketchup instead of the natural ingredient results in a bit higher tangy taste, and leaves a bad after-taste in your throat.