A funny thing happened when reporter Jennifer 8. Lee showed the man who invented General Tso's Chicken what had become of his dish: He was appalled.
"That's not right. This isn't authentic," he told her, an interaction she chronicled in her 2009 book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.
General Tso's Chicken might be the most popular Chinese dish in the western world, but like so much of the Chinese food Americans eat, it's the product of a telephone game we play with foreign cuisines.
In many ways, this has turned American Chinese Food into a cuisine of its own, an amalgam of dishes that either barely resemble the authentic versions that inspired them or resemble traditional Chinese dishes not at all. (This isn't a new concept—others have suggested it, too).
And that cuisine is vast, at least in terms of its reach. There are a lot of Chinese restaurants in this country. Tons of them! Somewhere around 50,000, according to Lee, who likes to point out that there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy's—combined.
But the dishes aren't the only thing that defines the landscape of Chinese food in the United States. Another constant is something you might have noticed anecdotally: the restaurant naming structure.
In the same way that opening up a new Chinese restaurant without any of the food staples Americans already love might make it difficult to woo customers, launching one without the sort of name people have come to expect could throw things off, too.
Americans have been trained to expect Chinese food at places with names like “Golden Dragon Buffet.” If you were to open a Chinese restaurant named like “Dorchester Meadows” it would probably tank.
Lee points out that this isn't specific to Chinese restaurants. The widespread use of certain phrases and words, she says, is characteristic of many cuisines, including not only other Asian ones, but also European ones.
Still, we wanted to quantify exactly what the vernacular of American Chinese restaurant names sounds like. To do that, we needed a database containing all of the country's Chinese restaurants. And we were able to get it -- or something pretty close to it -- from Yelp.
The crowdsourced review company provided us with geolocated names of close to 40,000 Chinese restaurants. And after sifting through the data, some interesting patterns became clear.
The single most frequent word appearing in Yelp’s list of Chinese restaurants is, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Restaurant.” “China” and “Chinese” together appear in the names of roughly 15,000 restaurants in the database, or over one third of all restaurants.
“Express” is the next-most popular word, showing up in the names of over 3,000 restaurants. But as with “Panda” (2,495 restaurants), the numbers for “Express” are inflated by the Panda Express restaurant chain, which has over 1,500 locations.
“Wok,” another popular naming option, was represented in over 2,500 restaurant names. “Garden,” “House” and “Kitchen,” meanwhile, are the three places that appear most often in Chinese restaurant names.
Interestingly the word “New” comes in at #11 on the list, appearing in the names of over 1,500 restaurants like “New Fortune Chinese Restaurant” and “New Chef Huang Buffet.” But the word “old” only appears 31 times, in restaurants like “Old Peking” and “Old Sichuan.”
The most popular color appearing in the list is “Golden” (1,238 restaurants), and other than “Panda” the most well-represented animal is “Dragon.”
Rather than rattle off a huge list of words, we’re just going to show you the word cloud below, which represents the 100 most frequently appearing words in Yelp’s database of Chinese restaurants.
These 100 words make up the lexicon of American Chinese restaurant names. They're the words American consumers unconsciously scan for when they drive through an unfamiliar town with a hankering for some General Tso's, the indicators American Jews look for when satisfying their Christmas-time craving. Search for them on Google, and you might find the nearest place you can order Chinese take-out from.
The other thing we can do with Yelp’s data is map it. Below, for instance, is a county-level map of the number of Chinese restaurants in the United States.
Yes, this is essentially a population map – where there are people, there are Chinese restaurants. But if we want to get a little more specific, we could note that the the number of Chinese restaurants in a county looks like more a function of the county’s Chinese-American population, which the Pew Research Center mapped not too long ago.
We can also map the number of restaurants on a per capita basis, which corrects for population to some extent. Here’s what that looks like.
The Northeastern states, Nevada and San Francisco’s Bay Area are the big standouts here, as well as parts of Hawaii and Alaska. There are a lot of sparsely populated counties in the middle of the country that stand out on this map too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re hotbeds of Chinese cuisine. Rather, when you only have a few thousand people living in a county, it only takes one or two restaurants to end up with a sky-high per capita number.
Taken together, though, these maps do show the surprising ubiquity of Chinese restaurants all across the country. Unless you’re smack in the middle of that Chinese food desert running from North Dakota to West Texas, you’re never really that far from Chinese cuisine -- or from the very specific words that denote that cuisine in the American imagination.