One of the most common questions I receive from people who hear about my dining experiences at nearly 7,000 Chinese restaurants is the most unusual restaurant names I’ve encountered. It was even one of the topics that film director Ian Cheney asked me about in The Search For General Tso. In the documentary, I mention the oddly named Strange Taste Restaurant which operated for a number of years in New York Chinatown. (Like many of the restaurants in this article, it’s no longer around.) I presume the owners meant “strange taste” to distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants, not knowing that strange-tasting food is normally not thought of as good.
But while Chinese restaurants in the United States are now well known for sometimes unusual or even nonsensical names, such wasn’t always the case. Indeed, throughout most of the 20th century, Chinese restaurants in America carried names that were benign. While they may have had some exotic flair, the names were non-threatening: Golden Dragon, Ming Palace, Jade West, Forbidden City, Madame Wu’s Garden, or simple Chinese names like Man Fook Low or Tai Ping. Such low-key restaurant naming is no surprise, given that Chinese Americans rose from a despised minority in the 19th century to popular ethnic food purveyors fairly early in the 20th century. In such an environment, a hint of the Orient to entice the tourists without being over the top was the perfect solution. In fact, innocuous names were necessary through most of the 20th century, as many Chinese restaurants relied at least in part on non-Chinese clientele, given that the Chinese exclusion laws worked to restrict the size of Chinese American communities.
But after a century of Chinese restaurant names like these, they became viewed as generic, unimaginative, and boring, pilloried by humorous inventions such as the random Chinese restaurant name generator.
A 1965 change in immigration laws led to new waves of Chinese migration to the United States. The Chinese restaurant landscape began to change as new restaurants catered primarily to Chinese diners. Late in the 20th century, new immigrants, particularly those from mainland China and sometimes unfamiliar with the English language, began to open and name their restaurants with interesting results.
The aforementioned Strange Taste Restaurant is what I would describe as an attempt to give a literal description of newness and discovery but losing something in translation. Along the same lines is Smelly Pot 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 native English speakers, somehow Smelly Pot just doesn’t cut it. In similar fashion are the San Gabriel Valley eateries Burrrp Café, Quality and Quantity Kitchen, and Fuzhou Manual Fish Ball (referring to handmade fish balls), which hardly sound like places to find an appetizing meal. Another restaurant I wonder about is Porkaroma, which opened in Fuzhou Manual Fish Ball’s location. My initial thought was perhaps the namers were using the “-rama” suffix (e.g., Futurama), but got mixed up. Would an immigrant restaurateur be familiar with “-rama”, or would he just be enticed by the aroma of pork?
Some Chinese restaurants have names that imply anything but Chinese food. My favorites in this category are Bavarian Garden in Oakland, O’Toole’s Roadhouse in the San Gabriel Valley, and The Inn Place and The Viking’s Table in Los Angeles. These restaurant names are easy to explain. Whoever opened these restaurants merely kept the name of the previous non-Chinese restaurant at that location. Retaining the predecessor name is not an unusual practice, motivated perhaps by the desire to minimize the costs of changing signage or legalities.
Of course, we’ve all seen Chinese restaurant menus mangle the English language, but sometimes they fail even to use real English words, as Authletic Dumpling House in New York Chinatown or Noodl Cafe in San Gabriel. In one case, the individual words seem right, but when put together, Bake Are We Café in the Los Angeles area doesn’t work. The restaurant may have successfully avoided a lawsuit from Toys ‘R’ Us, but it probably wasn’t worth the resultant head scratching. (We can also wonder whether McHuang’s in Washington DC was eventually done in by the lawyers). Of course, a nonexistent word can turn out to be clever, as with Cuisineer Six in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino.
A unique New York Chinese restaurant naming convention is to use the restaurant’s street address, in whole or in part, such as Sunrise 27 which once sat at 27 Division Street. But what happens when your restaurant is so successful it outgrows its location and moves to 54 Bowery? You call it Sunshine 27 and hope nobody asks about it. (Similarly named restaurants outside New York such as the now-defunct Dumpling 10053 in the San Gabriel Valley were started by ex-pat New Yorkers). Perhaps the most extreme example of this New York naming tradition is a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Chinatown simply called Restaurant on 58th St.
Another New York Chinatown contribution can be blamed on an owner’s failure to realize that it is permissible to use a fictitious business name. Why else would the restaurant on Mott St. call itself Dining Room Management Group Inc.? There are also deliberate attempts to be cute, such as Wok This Way, Lotus 1-2-3, Yankee Noodle, Mandarin Shogun (it served a combination of Chinese and Japanese food), and in Jackson, WY, Lame Duck. And there are the plainly unfortunate names, once demonstrated in Los Angeles by Poo-Ping Palace and Golden Ho restaurants. In a category by itself is John’s Chinese and Spanish Food in inner-city Los Angeles, which on the surface was a perfectly normal name. However, while promising an enticing fusion of cuisines, the “Spanish” food on the menu was tacos, with the immigrant owner confusing “Spanish” food with food eaten by people who speak Spanish.
Some of the names are just inexplicable. How would you justify Chinese restaurants called Suit Ur Buds, O’Heavy Noodles, Whatever, Why Thirsty, Private Kitchen (definitely open to the public), Lumen (it IS brightly lit), Zenith & Fantasy, 500cc Steak House, Elp Wok (rhymes with Yelp?) Leave Me Alone, Auction Chinese Food, Swen Chinese, and Go Believe?
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, a Hispanic surname? My best guess is that the owners didn’t know how to spell Riviera. But I cling to the possibility that they were big fans of Geraldo.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.