...and all I have to show for it is a stupid egg roll.
By: Jimbo X American
George Carlin once criticized America's fast-food-chain and department-store pockmarked countryside as a vacuous, coast-to-coast shopping mall. Honestly, I've never seen what's so bad about that. You ever driven through the Appalachians before? It's nothing but trees and rocks, with maybe a dilapidated shack and a gas station operated by a guy who hates minorities every 20 or so miles. Trust me, after driving through the mountainous environs of northern Tennessee all day, you would be plum appreciative to run into a strip mall parking lot. Compared to the rustic nothingness of most of America - which, in case you didn't know, was a good 72 percent of it - even a fucking Mattress Firm becomes something to get excited about.
While I am generally disgusted by the unadulterated mass consumption that goes on in this country - a shocker, I know - I am nonetheless fascinated by the social dynamics of consumerism. I suppose I am sort of like an oncologist, in that regard. Looking at cancerous furuncles all day isn't fun, but to cure the disease, you have to spend a lot of time gawping at it. And that, in a nutshell, is why I spend so much damn time talking about Taco Bell and General Mills cereal and Burger King. Once you understand your enemy, you are finally able to defeat them.
The thing is, there are just so many big box stores and fast food eateries out there that it is next to impossible to adequately tackle the entire consumer industrial complex. Even driving to work every day, at least 80 percent of the stores and fast casual restaurants I see flashing by are places I've never entered - Ulta and Cheddar's and Fry's and hhgregg and BJ's Wholesale Club and Dick's Sporting Goods or the Cheesecake Factory or Dave & Buster's or Fuddrucker's. For all I know, they could be wonderful post-post-modern utopias that would restore my faith in capitalism, but I'm guessing that's very, very unlikely. Regardless, they remain mysteries to me - parts of the shared 21st century American psyche that I just can't speak to. And what you don''t know, obviously, you can't write about.
Which brings me to perhaps the most popular big name fast food chain I had - up until recently - never experienced: Panda Express.
I wish I had a good story for why I've never eaten at Panda Express in all my 30 years on earth. It's not that I ever made a conscious effort to NOT walk into one of the restaurants, it's just that by some great cosmological fluke, I have never lived within close proximity to one of the chains. And maybe it is just me, or do all the restaurants just so happen to be isolated in the most difficult to reach locales? Shit, to get inside the parking lot of the one closest to my residence, I had to make three U-turns, drive behind a Wal-Mart parking lot and drive the wrong way against drive-thru traffic. Sorry, that's a lot of automotive risk for some orange chicken, and the local Taco Bell is WAY easier to get to.
Alas, I recently encountered something that FINALLY convinced me to try out the establishment ...
...free food, naturally. In this case, it was the promise of a free egg roll to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which according to the Sacramento Kings, is somehow racist against black people. Of course, just an egg roll wasn't enough to get me to weather the elements. Indeed, Panda Express had to sweeten the proverbial pot with some additional goods, which includes a souvenir take home box (OK) and coupons for more free food (fucking fantastic.) And with the gratis two-fer staring me in the face, I decided to make a little detour on my commute home.
As far as my general impressions of the restaurant ambiance, it was more or less what I expected. Like all decent Asian buffets, the air was muggy with steamed rice and spicy shit you really couldn't pinpoint. The furniture was very Chick-fil-a-ish, and the employees were about on par with the types of folks you'd find commandeering your friendly neighborhood Del Taco. Up until then, I had no idea that the restaurant had a Moe's/Chipotle line-item set-up, so I just kind of stood there in front of the cash register for a good ten minutes while everybody had their big ass plates of egg foo young and mandarin chicken rang up. Eventually, I produced my black and white online coupon, and the sorta chunky man in the bright red uniform told me I would have to wait eight minutes while they fried me up that commemorative "golden bar" as the advertisement promised.
Alas, even after my long, eight-minute wait, I received no special commemorative box. In fact, those crimson-cloaked jabronis didn't even give me my coupon for additional free food, which I suppose is an accurate facsimile of Chinese government procedure: Panda Express, not unlike Chairman Mao, promises you all you will ever need, but in reality, you get nothing and they patiently wait for you to die. That might be hyperbolic, but it probably isn't.
But to their credit, however, I did get a free "gold bar," and it was rather tasty. For starters, the product itself was pretty big ... a nice six inches, at least (which, ironically, is the exact same thing I hear from your mother from time to time.) This was no flaccid, undersized curry roll, like the kinds you find at Hong Kong buffets that are actually run by Malaysians who don't give a fuck what the health inspector tells them. It was crispy, it was flavorful, and it was filling. And, alike all great ethnic Chinese food, I had no earthly clue what the hell I was eating.
So, uh, is that carrot and lettuce and chicken? Or maybe pork? Eh, it doesn't matter. All in all, it was a damned flavorful medley that was so yummy it made me forget all about China's long history of civil rights violations and the fact Mao Tse-Tung killed three times as many people as Hitler did, but nobody ever talks shit about him, for some reason. Hey, if their contributions to world cuisine is this good, I say the government ought to be able to involuntarily harvest as many Falun Gong organs as they so desire.
The real MVP, however, is the chili sauce. Fuck Sriracha, this shit right here is where it is at, where it's going to be and probably where it should have always been. You could probably dip anything in this mix and it would be delicious - meats, veggies, rice, Yummy Mummy, they all benefit from it. If only to try this stuff again, Panda Express' Chinese New Year marketing ploy worked - yes, I will be back to the restaurant, I will indeed likely pay actual people money for their goods and services and whatever I end up ordering, you better bet your bottom (and ever diminishing in value) yuan that I'm going to marinate it in so much chili sauce, it will ... uh, taste a lot like chili sauce, I guess.
While there was a lot of stuff posted all over the restaurant explaining the importance of Chinese New Year rituals and all that jazz, I reckoned I really didn't need no cultural indoctrinatin' that evening. Alls I needs to knows about the Han is that their pollution is terrible, their upcoming senior citizen-social services crisis makes the one in the States look like a two-twig camp fire and it's only a matter of time until all that bad debt they collected during the Great Recession sends them flying off the rails (and in turn, kick-starting yet another worldwide financial crisis.) However, I did learn something very important for this, the Year of the Monkey: the food at Panda Express is pretty fucking great, I should eat more of it, and I probably will.
Now, is the stuff at the restaurant truly authentic Chinese? Well, seeing as how it didn't give me dysentery, probably not. But again, who cares if something is genuine or not? Appropriate as much goddamn culture as you like, as long as what you are serving me is something I find palatable, nothing else matters.
And that, my friends - whether we want to admit it or not - is true mass-consumption zhihui.