Sometime in the mid- to late-1990s, a new batch of hard-working and industrious Chinese immigrants came to do business in America.  And like many who came before them — these first-generation Chinese-Americans opened restaurants.

But these people did something a little bit differently — and it appeared to be some sort of coordinated effort.  Their product is the now-ubiquitous “China Buffet.”  So common, grand and successful, I’m sure they ran an Old Country Buffet (Hometown Buffet in some parts) or two out of business.  You know the joint: lots of steam tables, extra-greasy food cooked in the same pre-made sauce and those large, backlit portraits of the Temple of Heaven and Great Wall.

I’m not going to harp on the alleged seedier side of this story, but rather on the lasting impression I feel those buffets have made on how the masses view “Chinese food.”

For decades, families like mine dished-up Chinese food in classic, chop-suey-style takeout restaurants and the occasional finer establishment. (Congratulations to the Fong family on 50 great years! — My parents met working at their Bloomington restaurant in the late 70′s.)  We proudly serve Minnesota-style chow mein and we cook in the Cantonese style.  Lots of fresh vegetables.  Proud of our stir-fry dishes.  Red Moon uses real Cantonese-style noodles — not spaghetti-style noodles (who the hell thought that was a good idea?)  Our lunch buffets are modest in size but grand in flavor and freshness.  Just the right selection for an excellent lunch, right?

When Minnesotans said they loved Chinese food — ours was the food they raved about.  It was our brand.  Not defined by million-dollar ad campaigns or crafty marketing — but by tradition.

Today, I’m not so sure about that.  The “China Buffet” has muddied what people expect of “Good Chinese” or “Amazing Chinese” in our case.  As my dad says, “sometimes people don’t know what’s good.  You have to tell them.”  Trouble is, quantity speaks — and those buffets have it.

I thought of this dilemma last Saturday when a lady called Red Moon asking for directions, saying she was “looking for a good Chinese buffet.”  I told her how to get to Red Moon and told her she’d love our food.  I said “there’s a lot of crap out there, you’ll love ours.”  I’m pretty sure I spotted her party walking into our restaurant.  Two of them looked at our modest, single steam table, exchanged a few exasperated words and made a beeline for our front door.  I didn’t even have a chance to change their impression.

Ask my dad, and he’ll tell you he’d rather not feed those people, because they might not appreciate what he’s got to offer: amazingly prepared food.

But I worry that their mindset is a systematic shift in how people see Chinese.  And now, in late 2009 as the China Buffet’s own reputation has waned in our sour economy, I worry they may be carrying the greater Chinese food brand with them.  Are we all a loosely similar band of comfort/junk food-slingers?

I think it’s high time some of us reclaimed the classic, Chinese American-style brand.  Even as some of the buffet operators open smaller takeout joints to compete even more with restaurants like Red Moon, I will be steadfast in my desire to amp-up our customer service, our ties to the community and our unabashed pride in good, fresh cooking.

We will take back the brand.  Who’s with me in spreading the good word?

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