California Wok {restaurant} – Please Excuse the Oriental

california wok, los angeles, ca - barbecued sparerib, spring roll, won ton
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I hate my Asian self. Actually, it’s not that I hate being Asian. It’s just that after more than 20 years of highlighting and roll-straight-ing my hair, scotch-taping my eyelids, and pinching up the bridge of my “Oriental” nose every night before bed, I’m still getting used to loving myself and being proud of my heritage. I’ve been in California now for more than 10 years, but we all know that years of damage that was done in Texas, Michigan and Ohio will take twice as long to un-damage. It always works that way. You know, like, if you mentally tortured yourself by dating someone for 8 months, it takes 1 year and 4 months (that’s 16 months, for you non-Asians) to get over him/her? Something like that.

So, I don’t really hate being Asian, but I do make fun of my Asian self a lot, which is a habit that will have to be broken as part of this whole therapeutic healing process. It started, I think, because it was a way to pre-empt the mocking that I foresaw coming from school “friends” who would ignorantly point out my strangely flat face (other “flat” parts of the body were not unusual at the time – we were in elementary school), chinky slits for eyes, and jet-black, stick-straight, very coarse hair which, incidentally, isn’t even jet black. Dammit, I can’t even be stereotyped right! I have unusually light, wispy fine hair for an Asian.

My sisters and I even now call ourselves “oh-wee-entos,” picking on horrible fobby ESL pronunciation that slaphazardously swaps “l” or “w” for “r,” or eliminates it com-pweet-wee. Instead of saying “thanks,” we always say, “sanks!” The Korean language (I’m not sure about other Asian languages – I mean do you really think I’d go off and teach myself every dialect of the language that will soon take over the world?) has no equivalent for “f” or “th,” so when speaking English as a recent second language, Korean people often susbstitute “h” or “p” for the “f.” And not only are they “h-rench h-ries,” but suddenly the words have one or two additional syllables. They are “who-rench who-ries.” It’s so horrible that I totally make fun of my own people. Alright, so it’s not really making fun of anyone. I just wish I could, but unfotunately, Dad speaks perfect English, so I can’t even make fun of my own immigrant father. *sigh*

Now the question of the day, which has absolutely nothing to do with ESL, is, why do I hate being Asian? Why am I so embarassed by my own Mongoloid ancestry?

Because there are restaurants like California Wok representing Asian cuisine. Cornstarch-thickened, red food coloring-dyed sweet and sour deep-fried cream cheese and crab Chinese food that isn’t really Chinese food. It’s embarrassing.

Or is it?

It’s supposed to be embarrassing for me, but it’s not. As an Asian girl, I should be embarassed that such a restaurant as California Wok is representative of “Chinese” food to the dining world. I should, instead, be touting the glories of regional Chinese cuisine that can be enjoyed at various holes in the Great Wall in the San Gabriel Valley. But I’m not embarrassed. For goodness’ sake, I ate at California Wok.

The sad thing is, for the embarrassment to Chinese food that it is, California Wok didn’t taste good. I mean, if you’re going to do it wrong(ly), you may as well go all out and make it so utterly deliciously wrong that it’s right. Let’s start with California Wok’s $9.95 Assorted Appetizers. The spring roll wasn’t all that bad, but I do have to ask for my own edification, what is the difference between an eggroll and a spring roll? I know what a summer roll is, that’s Vietnamese, and not all Asians look alike, okay?! *whoa* Right stereotype, wrong post. Anyway, someone please explain why there is no such thing as an autumn roll. TIA!

california wok, los angeles, ca - eggroll and fried wontons
eggroll. or spring roll. i don’t know!
california wok, los angeles, ca - gift wrapped chicken
it’s like a little gift of grease

Deep fried won tons had hardly a filling that I had to wonder if they were just won ton chips that I should dip in this here sticky gloop of sweet and sour “salsa.” It was just sugar, cornstarch and water, with hardly a pucker of sour, and it was trying to be authentic by not being red!!! How dare California Wok leave out the red food coloring from sweet and sour sauce! I’m glad we didn’t order sweet and sour pork, because if they had also left out the canned pineapple chunks, I would have had to bust out my inner Bruce Lee on them.

california wok, los angeles, ca - barbecued pork
today’s barbecued pork is tomorrow’s flied lice
california wok, los angeles, ca - spare rib
spallib from adam to eeb

The other assorted Chinese delights on the Assorted Appetizer platter were a “paper-wrapped” chicken that was attractively gift-wrapped in aluminum foil to catch the grease that I didn’t know chicken had, very dry barbecued pork which was to come out on our appetizer platter tonight, or into tomorrow’s Yang Chow Flied Lice, and barbecued spareribs, also very dry. The only saving grace was that there was, indeed, suspiciously bright redvelvet-esque sauce drizzled over the pork and spareribs and a spare sprinkling of sesame seeds. Pretty! I think the appetizers were worth the 95 cents and the aluminum foil and sesame seeds were $9.

No sweet and sour pork, but we did order the Spicy Bean Curd. For all the Americans, that’s pan-fried tofu with shiitake mushrooms. I’m pretty sure everyone, even 88-year-old Aunt Dorothy in Wichita knows what tofu is, so I don’t know why California Wok has to call it something as nast
y sounding as bean “curd.” Anyway, the tofu was shimmering with glossy cornstarch sauce as expected. Each time I chopstick-lifted one from the plate, long, slimalicious tendrils of the sauce reached out in one final hopeful quiver, like a mother in a last good-bye grasp of her fleeing son across the railing of a boat bound for freedom. Actually, it wasn’t that dramatically endearing. It was kind of gross. I was slighly disappointed that the tofu was nowhere near spicy.

california wok, los angeles, ca - spicyy tofu
bean curd is such a nasty word
california wok, los angeles, ca - fortune cookie
i didn’t win the lottery

I’m embarrassed that I’m not embarrassed that I went to California Wok, though for what is tasted like, I wouldn’t go back. I’ll just go to some other Americanized Chinese chain that really knows how to make a mean Moo Goo Gai Pan. But maybe I should order it for delivery and answer the door with a blonde wig on.

I like California Wok. But I don’t like it. It confuses me, as I try to move on from my Asian hating self because my tramuatized elementary school self wants to hate it because it’s oriental, but I do like it because that’s the kind of Chinese-American food I ate when I lived in Detroit and it makes me all nostalgic for moon boots and cider doughnuts, but I don’t want to like it because now I am supposed to be proud of being Asian and any self-respecting yellow girl would be embarrassed by the worst kind of ketchup and cornstarch representation of Chinese food ever. But maybe I like that kind of ABC Chinese food because that’s the kind of “Chinese” food that all the other pretty, tanned, blonde white American girls eat. *sigh* It’s just too bad that California Wok doesn’t even really do Chinese so wrong that it’s American right. I’m confused. We’re confused. Asian Sarah and I-hate-my-eyelids Sarah, we, are confused.

I should teach myself a lesson by forcing myself to eat Panda Express for five days.

California Wok
12004 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
310.479.0552

** a year ago today, a commenter gave me attitude about my attitude about the attitude at ma’kai **

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  • shay

    I don’t know why, but that picture is looking damn tasty…I’m on the edge of my seat for your review [:

  • shay

    …and I’m getting the feeling the restaurant is horrible, so I’m vaguely embarassed about lusting after the greasy food on display here, but I’m still looking forward to your review! Take it as a compliment for your photography? (p.s. – what’s an amazing place to get chinese food while we’re on the topic?)

  • sarah

    shay: it depends on what kind of chinese food. screaming hong kong dim sum? spicy szechuan? taiwanese? i don’t know. panda express? just kidding. ;)

  • peachiee

    LOL- did they at least give you chopsticks to eat with? It is the ultimate insult when I go to a Chinese restaurant and they hand me a fork. :P

  • Foodie Universe

    I think the cook at California Wok is a vegetarian, because all of their meat is dried out and tough. I just got a couple of new Chinese menus on my doorstep (with exciting names like China Wok). I wonder if they’ll bring a better game to the Westside Chinese food scene?

  • jackt

    when i was in college in massachusetts there was an “asian” eatery run by white hippies with dreadlocks, and they served a bunch of asian noodle dishes from a bunch of different countries. kind of like zao in palo alto but done really bad. talk about insulting every single asian ethnicity all at once. bad pho. bad pad thai. bad chap chae. bad lo mein. bad ramen. all made with spaghetti noodles, under one roof. that place almost singlehandedly drove me back to california. the giant snowstorm during junior year spring break also contributed.

    now i count my blessings every time i hit an asian place in ca. even panda or pick up stix. nowadays the only thing that irks me is when they add carrots to thai food. and when people go to wat thai and get the grilled pork/chicken/beef and call it satay (it’s on a stick, but it’s got no peanut sauce or curry marinade, so it *ain’t* satay).

    ok i will get off my soapbox now.

  • santos.

    do you think the hatin’ on the heritage has something to do with other asians hating on your ancestry? i know i can be defensive over being filipina because as a race we’re looked on as being cheap domestic help or bar girls in other asian countries. or maybe you didn’t have to go through the other asians looking down on you thing on the mainland, so nevermind.

    anyway, i’d rather have california wok or panda express representing my cuisine than say, tgifriday’s and applebee’s be the benchmark.

  • sarah

    peach: well of course they gave me chopsticks! the plastic kind, because it’s cheaper to wash than to buy disposable. LOL!

    foodie U: i think if the restaurant’s name has any of the following words, it is definitely a no-go: china, golden, gate, pearl, dragon, express, panda and wok ;)

    jackt: no! stay on the soap box! i love rants about food. lol! rant away!

    santos: well, not so much other sians for me as whole non-yellow races not understanding me and mah yellow peeps (not the easter candy, mind you). but i do know about the filipina stereotypes. santos, are you a nurse!??! (i always rail on my filipina friends for being nurses and they make fun of my relatives with liquor stores LOL!)

    um, applebee’s. no comment.

  • onetomato

    i grew up in orange county where being asian was considered “cool,” or at least scary because we all were gangsters ;) so i don’t really have your experience, but i do have friends who wre adopted and/or from the midwest who share your views. and i think it’s better to question and be confused than to be ignorantly screaming “KP!” everytime you get drunk or something like some people i know. besides, at least your bashing is therapeutic.

  • Maure

    now you know how i feel about matzoh and gefilte fish – gee i know i should like it on some level, or have somee pride and put it in a conspicous spot in my pantry. maybe i should keep the box there and just replace the matzoh with turkey jurkey or something.

    well anyhow happy passover sarah!

  • sarah

    ometomato: gangsters! haha! do you have a tattoo of a chinese character on your shoulder? ;) yes, ’tis therapeutic to bash, but not nearly as therapeutic as downing a bottle of behk-seju! which reminds me….

    maure: chag sameach :)

    and i freakin’ LOVE matzo. gefilte fish? hm *shrugs* not so much. but MATZO!!!

  • Maure

    then i’m bequeathing you my lifetime supply after i’m gone.

    that and my recipe for matzobrie with kim chee – now that puts the k
    in parve!

    p.s. a mandarin martini
    does sound marvelous – y’know just a taste or so.

  • Kirk

    Hi Sarah – I really enjoyed this one – but I guess my planned ABCDE restaurant – “Eastern Pearl Royal Golden Phoenix Garden Restaurant” doesn’t stand a chance, does it? You gotta watch with those Asian “Tat’s”, a person I know back home thought it was going to be real cool – except that the Gaijin Tatto artist made a couple of mistakes with the Korean Characters…but he didn’t know, until a an “Aji-ma” in a local bar told Him what it meant…I don’t recall exactly, but I remember we were cracking up about the “horse” for weeks…….

  • sarah

    maure: if it had only absolute mandarin with the faintest twist of a mandarin zest, i’d be down with it. easy.

    kirk: lol! i don’t even want to know what the tat was intended to be, and how it ended up as “horse,” or even vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    With what do you believe “authentic” Chinese cooks thicken sauces? Reductions au sec? Beurre manie? Arrowroot? Have you ever: (1) worked in an “authentic” Chinese kitchen; (2) read a cookbook written in Chinese; (3) been a cook in such a kitchen; (4) travelled anywhere in China; or (5) done anything but whine and write silly, ignorant-but-sassy, so-called “food reviews”?

  • sarah

    anonymous: i have never done anything BUT whine and write utterly ignorant, not even sassy blog posts!

    *sigh*

    you must be new around here. welcome!

  • shrestha12

    Mmm really looks delicious. I’m getting hungry just looking at the pictures. Wantons are great i just love it.
    _________
    Pratul
    california dui

  • shrestha12

    Mmm really looks delicious. I’m getting hungry just looking at the pictures. Wantons are great i just love it.
    _________
    Pratul
    california dui

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