This obscure restaurant near the corner of 16th Street and Seventh Avenue — which advertises a combination of Sichuan and Vietnamese food — was declared one of the best Chinese restaurants in the country in the inscrutable “Top Chefs & Owners” category.
This past Sunday, correspondent Bill Geist of CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on the seventh annual Top 100 Chinese Restaurants awards presentation. Oh boy! I rubbed my hands, wondering which of my favorite local restaurants would be in the Top 100. The answer: none. In between dumb jokes, Geist blathered that, with 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., this awards presentation is as big in its own way as the Golden Globes or the Oscars. Apparently trying to make fun of bad Chinese food, he joked, “Chop suey is the Spam of Chinese food.” No, Bill, Spam is the Spam of Chinese food.
The ceremony was held at a San Francisco hotel, and involved hundreds of yards of red material, and celebrities like Martin Yan and Theresa Lin Cheng, described as “the Julia Child of Taiwan.” But just how were the winners selected? I found it a bit odd that Yang Ming, a restaurant from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, placed first in the nation. Not impossible, just odd, given the towering excellence of Chinese food in Flushing, the San Gabriel Valley, San Francisco, and South Bay.
I asked Fork in the Road San Francisco correspondent Tracy Van Dyk about the San Francisco restaurant that placed second nationally, and she replied by email, “The number two is Yank Sing, which is essentially fancy dim sum for white people, it’s expensive and not very good. Sad, because it’s conveniently located.” I decided to go to the website of the restaurant awards and see what I thought about the other choices, especially those that might be located in the five boroughs.
It turns out that, out of 100, only three are situated in New York City. The highest ranked — Szechuan Garden (No. 4) — is in Flushing, not a bad place, but a little timid and old-fashioned when it comes to Sichuan food. It’s been sadly outstripped by the slew of new Northern Chinese restaurants — which do great versions of Sichuan dishes — and the plenitude of newer Sichuan restaurants, too, like Spicy & Tasty and Little Pepper. Szechuan Garden is far from awful, but there’s no way in Hades it’s the fourth best Chinese restaurant in the entire country — heck, I can think of four better ones within four blocks.
Lan Sheng is listed, unranked, among the Top 100 Specialty restaurants. The place is quite good, but didn’t make the Top 100 overall. This is their rabbit with chilis. (Photo: Sarah DiGregorio)
Congee Village was ranked No. 9 in the nation. Now, I’ve always liked that restaurant, but it would be somewhere in the high 40s if I had to rank the Top 100 Chinese restaurants in town, certainly not in the whole country. The lowest NYC restaurant on the Top 100 list was New Ruan’s in Bensonhurst, a decent place on 86th Street, ranked at No. 61.
There were several lesser categories, including Buffet, Best Value, Takeouts, and the cryptic “Specialty.” These lists generally involved different restaurants than the Top 100, and were put in alphabetical order by state, rather than ranked. Vanessa’s Dumplings, for example, was listed as a Local Favorite. And so was Suzie’s on Bleecker Street. You see what I’m getting at? These places mainly seem like very Westernized Chinese restaurants with food adapted for outsiders, rather than the actual best Chinese restaurants in the country.
You might write the whole thing off as a massive marketing ploy, except there’s an elaborate set of rules that assigns percentages to different groups of voters (typos theirs):
Mystery Diner Evaluation (40%)
This is the reliable extra steps to verify and on-site evaluation component for the award selection. This real time anonymous assessment is done by About Face, a mystery dining service company. The mystery diner visits and evaluates each restaurant. The mystery diner’s written report and scorecard are the main measures of success for the candidates.
Public Votes (20%)
Votes can be submitted in two ways:
1.) Guests obtain ballots at the restaurant, vote, and turn them in. The restaurant then sends the ballots to Chinese Restaurant News.
2.) Online — Guests log on the Top 100 website and cast their votes. Results will automatically be displayed.
Critiques and Diner Reviews (10%)
This segment will partner with very well known community forum — yelp.com, the ultimate city guide that taps into the community’s voice and reveals honest and current insights on local businesses and services.
Culinary Awards (20%)
The restaurant can submit diner testimonials and any awards it has already earned, including local honors or positive reviews on popular online dining guides.
Advisory Panel Evaluation (10%)
A panel of carefully selected food critics, journalists, Chinese Restaurant News editors, and other industry experts will evaluate the restaurant’s merits as a whole.
As far as About Face goes, I’m not sure I’d let secret shoppers pick my Chinese food. And the proportion given to Yelp reviews seems low, too. The whole system of voting appears screwy to me. But I’m not blaming the awards organizers, who can establish any criteria for excellence they want, no matter how bogus — I’m blaming CBS Sunday Morning for lending credibility to an awards program that has virtually none.
At any rate, some delighted restaurateur in Bryn Mawr is probably hoisting cold ones right now.