Sunday, March 8, 2015

Best Chinese Restaurant Names

Since Los Angeles Times Reporter Frank Shyong's Analysis of Chinese restaurant names in my Excel Chinese restaurant listing has just been republished, this is a good time for me to recount some of my favorite Chinese restaurant names.  Despite the safety zone that Frank referred to in his article, there are also a number of Chinese restaurants with unusual, if not inexplicable names.  Sometimes things get lost in translation.  For example, in my interview in the food documentary The Search For General Tso, I mention the oddly named Strange Taste Restaurant which operated for a number of years at the intersection of Henry St. and Catherine St. in New York Chinatown.   I presume they were using "strange taste" in a good manner, to distinguish themselves from run of the mill Chinese restaurants, not knowing that strange tasting food was never good.   Along the same lines is Smelly Pot in Industry, in the San Gabriel Valley.  The name describes the restaurant's signature dishes which are all infused with the Taiwanese favorite, fermented, a.k.a. stinky tofu. But to us native English speakers, somehow that just doesn't do it.  And in a similar category are the departed Burrrp Cafe in Alhambra, Quantity and Quality Kitchen in Temple City (later shortened to Q&Q) and Fuzhou Manual Fish Ball in Rowland Heights (they meant hand made fish balls).

One recently closed restaurant I wonder about was Porkaroma, a food court based pork specialist in nearby Rowland Heights.   My initial thought was that they were using the "rama" suffix (e.g., Futurama), but got mixed up.  But would an immigrant restaurant owner be familiar with "rama", and perhaps might they really be enticed by the aroma of pork?  I guess we'll never know.

Then there are those Chinese restaurants whose names would ordinarily imply anything but Chinese food.  My favorites in this category are Bavarian Garden in Oakland, O'Toole's Roadhouse in Rowland Heights, and The Viking's Table in West Los Angeles, again all now closed.  But these restaurant names are easy to explain.  Whoever opened these restaurants merely kept the name of the previous restaurant at that location.  This is not an unusual practice, motivated perhaps by the desire to minimize the costs of changing signage or printing new business cards.  This may also explain why Hong Kong Palace in suburban Washington DC serves top notch authentic Sichuan style food despite the apparent incongruity in the name.   Indeed, some Chinese restaurants take this a step further, by taking over an existing restaurant location, changing the name of the restaurant on legal records, menus etc., but NOT changing the exterior signage on the building.  We've seen that occur with relative frequency, again most likely as a cost cutting measure, at least until the success of the restaurant has been ensured and it pays to have the correct name outside.  But it sure makes it difficult for those of us searching for newly opened restaurants, as a simple drive-by isn't sufficient to indicate that a new restaurant has opened.

Of course, we've all seen Chinese restaurant menus mangle the English language, but you would expect that somebody would advise a restaurant to use real English words in the name.  But that didn't stop Authletic Dumpling House from opening up in New York Chinatown or Noodl Cafe in San Gabriel.   In one case they got the individual words right, but somehow when put together, Bake Are We Cafe in Artesia, CA doesn't work.  They may have avoided a lawsuit from Toys R Us, but it probably wasn't worth the resulting head scratching.  Of course, a nonexistent word can turn out to be clever, as was the case with Cuisineer Six in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino.

Then there are the names which are inexplicable, perhaps randomly chosen because an English language name is required for legal purposes.  How would you explain the Shanghai style restaurant in Rowland Heights called Suit Ur Buds, the Taiwanese restaurant in San Gabriel, Why Thirsty, Auction Chinese Food in Colton, CA, or Go Believe in Manhattan Chinatown?   

But my favorite Chinese restaurant name of all is the seemingly innocuous Rivera Cafe, which operated in San Gabriel.  Yes, Rivera is a fairly commonplace name.  But why would a Chinese restaurant call itself Rivera, which is a Hispanic surname?  My best guess is that they didn't know how to spell Riviera.  But there's always the possibility that they were big fans of Geraldo.