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Taking Out Chinese vs. Chinese Take-Out

January 13, 2014

Before I get to the important business of beating my newest horse that is precariously on the edge of death, I’ve got a much less important question to ask. Now, I’m not saying that any of these will ever exist, but I’m going to ask a couple of questions for argument’s sake.

– Would you be interested in a free FLB bumper sticker or bumper magnet?
– If you are, which one would be more appealing?

My assumption is that the answer to the first question will be no. So the second one is kind of moot. Just remember bumper stickers can be put on anything: laptop lids, bicycle frames, motorcycle helmets, office cubicle walls, etc. Magnets are a little more finicky. You could put one on your fridge, to remind you to take your daily dose of fussy.

Personally, I keep my car free of any kind of messaging. I’m not even crazy about having the make and model of the automobile emblazoned on its rear end. So I won’t take it personally if you have no interest in helping to spread fussy on your car’s fender.

The topic of the day does have something to do with cars. But really I feel like I need to go on the record and make an important clarification between two very distinct things. Mostly because I’m concerned that people in the Capital Region conflate the two.

This all started in the comments section of Jeff’s story on the Northeast Dumplings House. By the way, my old friend who lives in Vermont and is a reporter for a paper up there, came down all the way to Albany to try this place, and he loved their potatoes with pancakes. Have you gone yet?

Anyway, a woman named Emily asked, “Anyone have any takeout experiences with them?”

Now here’s the thing. Northeast Dumplings House actually has a pretty decent take-out model. They premake a bunch of dumplings and freeze them. That means, you can order a sack of frozen dumplings to take home, boil up in your kitchen, and eat them hot out of the water.

But even still, the dumplings to go are frozen first, and the texture of foods can suffer in the freezer. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that much, but other times the difference really detracts.

As gently as I could, I entreated Emily to consider eating in.

It didn’t take long before our old friend Jessica R. argued in defense of Chinese Take-out, “There are some nights when all I feel like doing is getting right into my pajamas, watching Jeopardy with my cats, and eating Chinese Take-out.”

Okay. I kind of get where she is coming from. But I think what needs to be made explicitly clear is that we seem to be talking about two entirely different things.

Honestly, I’m not too familiar with classic American “Chinese Take-out” so bear with me a moment. But it seems to be American fast food. Many of the restaurants that specialize in this are near college campuses and don’t have much of an eating space. They tend to offer delivery, and will throw in a free egg roll with a certain amount of food. All the menus tend to look the same, so in some ways what they sell is a commodity. But even so, there are quality differences from place to place, generally based on the grade of meat used in their food and the gloppiness of their sauces.

The thing that always galls me about such places are the packets of “soy sauce” which are misleadingly labeled pouches of brown salt water. Seriously, if you eat at these joints, check out the ingredients on the duck sauce and hot mustard as well. It’s revolting.

Still, even “Chinese Take-out” still tastes better directly at the source. But I can see the appeal of getting these familiar flavors brought to your door. Fat and salt are delicious, and this convenient cuisine delivers.

My concern is that this has largely been the model of Chinese restaurants in the Capital Region for far too long. And it’s reasonable that the average resident of the area would come to expect a new Chinese restaurant to conform to these norms.

But these are exciting times to be eating Chinese food around Albany. The market is expanding. Regional cuisines are being highlighted. Innovative dim sum is now available downtown. And the Hong Kong Bakery finally has the right equipment to make decent egg custards.

Invariably at some of these restaurants there will be dishes that you can order to go that will not suffer in their take-out boxes. Fried foods suffer. Noodles suffer. Delicate seafood items tend to keep cooking in their containers on the journey home. Some soups and stews might be okay. The baked buns at Hong Kong Bakery are obvious choices to take away, as are the frozen dumplings we spoke of earlier. Cold dishes are perfectly fine, like Ala Shanghai’s aster salad.

The best bet, though, is to simply eat in the dining room. What I haven’t figured out yet is why there is such resistance to this idea. Is it concern about the language/communication barrier? Is it that you haven’t quite mastered chopsticks and feel silly asking for a fork? Is it that you just can’t imagine eating Chinese food in street clothes?

Whatever the cause it, I advise that it’s high time to get over it, and make it out to one of our seriously good Chinese restaurants that specializes in food that you should eat right on the spot. And given that it’s Albany, and we’ve got a pretty informal culture, I’m sure the restaurants wouldn’t even mind if you showed up in your pajamas.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Jamie permalink
    January 13, 2014 11:18 am

    I probably wouldn’t sticker or magnet my car or fridge. But, I will venture out to Northeast Dumpling House this week, sit down in my street clothes and enjoy some of those potato delights.

  2. -R. permalink
    January 13, 2014 11:43 am

    I most certainly would not apply a bumper sticker or magnet to anything. Hell, I won’t even wear clothing with any adornment, as I refuse to be a walking billboard for anything or anyone. Sorry.

    That said, while I generally agree with your theories on take-out suffering from the trip (much like a DeFazio’s pie), Chinese food however is fairly robust. Our normal take out place is the Shining Rainbow and their food travels surprising well, even the divine scallops and shrimp in brown sauce. But items like chicken wings don’t travel well at all, nor do most things that come from a deep fryer. Overall, the convenience and the comfort of one’s own home sometimes wins out over a cold, icy trip to a semi-bleak part of Albany. That said, we have been to the Northeast Dumpling House, and it was excellent.

  3. Tom S permalink
    January 13, 2014 11:53 am

    i like stickers. they go on my roof box.

  4. Stevo permalink
    January 13, 2014 12:32 pm

    This is not related specifically to Chinese take-out, but this it’s an issue I care a lot about.

    It dismays me that most–and I’m talking about 98% of people–just don’t care about eating food immediately after it’s been cooked.

    My mother-in-law is a wonderful cook. But when we come for dinner she cooks most everything ahead of time and puts in into the oven to keep warm. And she has a decently sophisticated palate, and is no dummy. But she just doesn’t care. My father-in-law husband will sometimes cook meat on the grill. She tells him when to start, and she always has him start way too early. Often times the meat is served cold. This drives me absolutely batty.

    Trying to get people to understand and convince them that this matters, I’ve found is an exercise in futility.

    • Stevo permalink
      January 13, 2014 12:34 pm

      Sorry for all the typos, I inadvertently hit post before proof-reading.

    • EPT permalink
      January 13, 2014 3:19 pm

      Outside of leaving a properly cooked steak/duck breast/rack of lamb etc. to rest a bit and let the carry over cooking finish. I totally agree, a meal should be served hot NOT lukewarm, plus reheating or holding affects the flavor and texture.

    • ericscheirerstott permalink
      February 9, 2014 6:15 pm

      I feel the same way about relatives who make Waffles ahead of time, then put them in the oven where they either turn into wet doughy messes or into brittle dry messes.

  5. January 13, 2014 1:17 pm

    Went to the Northeast Dumpling House and really enjoyed the lamb dumplings. The potatoes with pancakes were also good . ..a bit mild for my taste but it was my first visit. I had take-out by the way as they were about to close.

  6. docsconz permalink
    January 13, 2014 1:42 pm

    I believe the crux of the matter is the style an type of Chinese food in question. What has become classic Chinese-American is generally ok as take-out, but rarely does that style convey the best of what the cuisine has to offer. We are starting to see a wider variety and better quality of Chinese cooking in the area that deserves to be appreciated in its best light.

  7. January 13, 2014 1:53 pm

    I don’t recall ever getting chinese take-out as a kid–we did go to a Chinese restaurant more than once, but maybe there were few asian restaurants at all in the 60’s & 70’s.

  8. upstatedave permalink
    January 13, 2014 3:17 pm

    As an outlander who has not lived here for many, many years you might find it paradoxical that in the 80s and 90s there were probably many more full service/sit down type Chinese restaurants of relatively high quality then there are now. Charlie Chow had the Hunan Restaurant down on Madison Ave. which was good (that was my childhood ‘hood). Peking was also right there but I never really liked that place. An offshoot of Hunan (opened by family members) was the Dumpling House over in Colonie just off exit 5 of 90 (sort of by Tobin’s First Prize). These place come to mind, there were probably more.

    These were all sit down/white table cloth type places. The Dumpling House in its heyday was actually a pretty nice place to go and my family went so often that there was a picture of me in my Pop Warner uniform behind the bar!

    This is all to say that the concept of sit down Chinese food is nothing new to area. There is a tradition which is why I think many old Albany-ers were so happy when a place like Ala Shanghai opened.

    Incidentally, here is some Albany lore for you. Charlie Chow ran the Madison Ave/Pine Hills institution that was Joe’s Restaurant on Madison Ave (ran for a generation by the famous Joe Kulik). I think it was taken over by the Coccas sometime later before finally shutting down.

  9. January 13, 2014 3:46 pm

    I like to eat in at Ala Shanghai and some of the other places that have been mentioned. However, up my way in Saratoga the best Chinese is at take-out places and while they do have a few tables and chairs, eating in is hardly a pleasant experience. So we get it to go.

    There is considerable difference between good and bad takeout Chinese food. It’s not just the quality of the meat and the gloppiness of sauces. There’s also a thing called flavor and a cook’s attribute called giving a shit. My favorite local places are Sunny Wok in Wilton and Wang’s in Malta. Get some kung pao shrimp, something with broccoli in it, ask for hot and sour soup and you will be okay. Don’t get anything sweet and sour; unlike on the west coast, here it’s a pile of dough balls with neon sauce on the side.

    P.S. One of the best reasons to take it home is that you have your own soy sauce and sriracha.

    • January 13, 2014 4:21 pm

      This is a huge gap that I wish someone would fill — you can’t get “good” Chinese food north of Clifton Park (and even Tai Pan is alright, not great), and I don’t really understand why, considering the fair number of people and dollars around Saratoga and the survival there of other ethnic eateries.

  10. January 13, 2014 3:47 pm

    I agree with -R above… there is a distinction between those dishes which travel relatively well, and those that don’t. I wouldn’t, say, order a whole steamed fish finished in hot oil, and ask a proprietor to stick it in a styrofoam container and deliver it to me. But certain noodle dishes do okay in a delivery car.

    And I agree that Chinese-American is doing well in the Capital Region right now. Rain is a good new addition to the scene, and of course Northeast is doing well.

    And I’ll be happy to put a magnet on my fridge. But unless you want me to stick a bumper sticker on the back of an Empire Service/Lakeshore Limited train, you’ll have to count me out that way. ;)

  11. January 13, 2014 4:19 pm

    It could be an ingrained American cultura thing — Chinese food in this country originally became popular partly because Chinese eateries pioneered the idea of delivering food to your door. But while inauthentic ChinAmerican takeout can still be yummy, authentic, regional Chinese food, eaten at the peak of quality when it’s brought to your table, can be so much better.

  12. Josh K. permalink
    January 13, 2014 5:32 pm

    Northeast Dumpling is good stuff but I would venture to say that the dumplings and soup would be terrible as take-out. Once the dumplings and soup went to room temperature (with 12 dumplings in an order this is bound to happen) they really suffered. That said, I reckon cold dishes and the potato and pancakes would be fine. Bring tums.

    BTW – Did anyone like the soy/vinegar dipping sauce for the dumplings? I found it unappealing. I much prefer a darker, savory soy sauce with dumplings.

  13. Lorraine permalink
    January 13, 2014 8:46 pm

    I don’t want a sticker or a magnet and you have a lot of nerve even offering me one! LOL

  14. Emily permalink
    January 13, 2014 9:28 pm

    I’m Emily! Hi- I love your column. Anyway, the reason I asked about takeout was two fold: 1. I am pregnant, and tired all the time. My husband works in downtown Albany and can pick up takeout easily on his way home, and on nights where it is absolutely freaking freezing, a takeout spot gets my pick over having to wear real clothes and go somewhere; 2. I love the soup at Taiwan Noodle House and we have eaten in there, but when we got takeout from there, the texture of the noodles definitely suffered for having been congealing in the container separate from the broth, so I’m very aware of the quality issues associated with take out and wanted to avoid those pitfalls.

    I do like eating in, and I will take you up on the suggestion, at least for our first try at Northeast Dumpling House.

  15. EPT permalink
    January 14, 2014 9:06 am

    Remember way back when the China Pavilion opened on, I think, it’s called Wolf Rd. ext. That was GOOD Chinese food but a bit expensive. I don’t think any of the newer places can measure up to the Pavilion.

  16. January 14, 2014 2:52 pm

    Josh K.: I don’t particularly enjoy that kind of soy/vinegar sauce either. I’ve occasionally been known to bring my own shoyu from home when I know I’ll have that kind of trouble. ;) Here’s one of my favorite purveyors of shoyu (and many other things), if Daniel doesn’t object, with a few interesting selections… one of the best markets in the country. I’d call and see what they have in stock before I order, of course:

  17. Deedee permalink
    January 15, 2014 1:45 pm

    I think of take-out Chinese and eat-in Chinese as very different and I have different expectations for them. I liked upstatedave’s comment about The Dumpling House. I miss eating there. I would be happy to put your magnet on my fridge.

  18. January 22, 2014 12:25 pm

    Wait a minnit – innovative dim sum downtown? Where?

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