The Fortune Cookie Restaurant: a New Taste Sensation
“I like American food! American? That’s the best Chinese food in San Francisco.”
– Flower Drum Song
My friends and family know I love Chinese food – whether it’s take-out, dim sum, noodle/won ton/bbq holes-in-the-wall or high-end gourmet Chinese cuisine, I love it all. This despite the bizarre service I sometimes encounter. Like the other night when my family and I went to our place in Toronto’s Chinatown East. Our favourite waiter automatically brought us a specialty soup that is off-menu – three meat variety with mushrooms, the best soup money can buy. When the rest of our meal was promptly delivered, I noticed the three bowls of rice we had ordered were not present. So I asked the rather angry looking waitress. She barked, “Coming soon!” Such disdain; so rude; so expected. Readers know I have complained about this before so I won’t continue in that vein.
Instead, I have discovered that I am not eating authentic Chinese cuisine. Rather I am enjoying American food – like the quotation from Flower Drum Song above indicates. I know this because there’s a new taste sensation in Shanghai. American Chinese food!
Two American entrepreneurs and Cornell University classmates, Fung Lam and Dave Rossi (both in their 30s), opened an American-Chinese restaurant in Shanghai’s Changsu Rd. It is called the rather bad-news name the Fortune Cookie, though it might seem unique and catchy in Shanghai. If I saw a place so named, I might avoid it. Nah, who am I kidding? I would try it once but alone. My smart friends and family would simply be busy at the time.
According to the Fortune Cookie’s website, the decor is very attractive and designer fashioned. Not the usual heavy, metallic tables and chairs, perfunctory booths, blandly painted walls with the odd piece of bad art on them and scratched up linoleum floors sorely in need of cleaning. Still, there are the mandatory neon signs and a dragon carved into a wooden wall. The place has a sense of humour.
Fung Lam describes the menu as the following: “We serve sweet-and-sour pork, General Tsao’s chicken, orange chicken, chow mein (got to be Cantonese style), egg rolls and crab Rangoon.” I’m sure the dishes include day-glo red sauce, msg, and deep fried shrimp and chicken for the taste. The food is take-out and eat-in and comes in those white cardboard and wire boxes with red pagodas printed on all sides (complete with chop suey printing exhorting the customer to “enjoy” accompanied by a cheery “thank you”), seen everywhere in Hollywood movies. And in fact, the Chinese public thought they were only used in the movies. My wife and I know otherwise, we just can’t understand why hakujin in those films eat right out the boxes with or without hashi. They even eat Chinese food in bed. Really? Does that really happen?
Lam worked in his family’s Brooklyn, New York, Chinese restaurant for years so he was quite familiar with the food. But that wasn’t Rossi’s and his goal when they went to China to open a business in the first place. They started with a restaurant featuring healthy dishes. It didn’t go well. Somewhat down, they sought the comfort food of their youth – American Chinese food. They were surprised when they couldn’t find any. Then a light bulb went off.
“It’s awesome to try new dishes and it’s great to try new things, but there also will come a time when you just want something that you remember,” Rossi said.
At first (about two years ago), the Fortune Cookie attracted only ex-pat North Americans, but because of the Big Bang Theory, a huge television hit in China, Chinese customers started to come and order what the characters ate in just about every episode. Today, about 50% of their customers are Chinese.
Their main problem they encounter these days: the ingredients. They actually have to import some of them to recreate that “American Chinese food” flavour. Thus Heinz ketchup is used for the sweet and sour; Mott’s mixes well to create the duck sauce; and Skippy peanut butter adds “authentic” flavour to the fried noodles. I do wonder if they have to import the noodles.
Some may argue that the two restaurateurs are bringing back original Chinese cuisine: General Tsao’s chicken is unknown in the general’s home province of Hunan and moo shoo pork originated in Northern China and has been popular across North America for the last 50 years.
At the end of every meal, of course, comes the plate of fortune cookies, a truly American confection, said to have been invented in Los Angeles or New York by Chinese Americans or, most interestingly, in San Francisco by a Japanese American man Makoto Hagiwara. The fortunes themselves seem to be quotations from famous Americans like Abraham Lincoln: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”
Does this mean a trip to Shanghai is in my future? Always wanted to go to China but is an American-styled Chinese restaurant enough of an inducement? Only the fortune cookie knows.