"The finest food and pants blog on the web."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Annals of Chinese

Today I found myself at Wo Hop, a 70+ year old restaurant on Mott Street. For some reason, every mention of the place I've come across seems to include the fact that you must walk down a flight of steps to get into it. Well, that was my experience as well, and since everyone thinks it so important to mention, I figured I might as well do the same.

The place itself has a certain charm. The walls are lined with mirrors and autographed head shots, although I couldn't recognize a single portrait. The waiters are matter-of-fact and efficient, and, as mentioned in other reviews, chopsticks are not easily found.

My observance of the menu and my tasting of a few dishes confirmed that Wo Hop serves pretty standard "Americanized" Chinese. 

Dish 1: chicken lo mein. Totally fine.

Dish 2: shrimp in lobster sauce. Totally fine.

Dish 3: crispy whole bass in Hunan sauce

Dish 3 held the most promise for something a bit more "authentic." Alas, the fish was in a gloppy, corn starchy sauce. All of the food was edible and not bad. I happen to enjoy Americanized Chinese food; I would never scoff at it in a pretentious foodie way. Sure, Sichuan is far and away better, but chicken with broccoli and beef chow fun serve their purpose. I must say, though, when it comes to Americanized Chinese, I've had much better than the versions served at Wo Hop.

A review in the NY Times from not long ago praised the place. And indeed, it seems more to praise the place and the idea it represents ("an authentic taste of an inauthentic past") than the food itself, as was bluntly and harshly stated in a review posted on Eater. The reviewer on Eater had this to say of the food: "It's bland, hastily prepared and gloppy with sauce"

The reviewer on Eater points to a more psychological reason for people claiming to love Wo Hop: it "reassures" them, perhaps reminds them of their childhoods, keeps alive the idea of cheap and simple Chinese

Sam Sifton, in his Times review, concludes thusly: "There is great comfort in eating such food, at a restaurant with seven decades in Manhattan, still going strong."

Comfort has its place, but should it trump the food itself? And granting, I also believe in the Idea of American Chinese, should we not at least praise those places that serve tastier executions? Is the praise of WoHop the praise of continuity and nothing more? In the end, all of this serves to underscore the psychological nature of eating, the fact that our needs and desires paint our experiences with food.