In the Philippines, Chinese restaurants were everywhere and were, outside of the mercado, often the only choice for dining out. The situation is changed now. Restaurants offering native Filipino food but spruced up for the modern palate are sprouting as expression of a reborn nationalism, especially among young, educated Filipinos. My nephew even opened a traveling kiosk selling various flavors of guinamos, that lowly, smelly, native counterpart to the Western European anchovy!
The change in the U.S. is even more marked. Until the 1980s, ethnic restaurant meant Chinese restaurant, and Cantonese-American at that. Now, of course, we have Indian restaurants and sushi joints at every corner and Mexican groceries and restaurants are appearing even faster to serve the fast-growing Mexican expatriates. These are usually families with many children (Catholics, you know).
The new Chinese restaurants are no longer your familiar Cantonese. Insular Americans, even here in the Midwest, are finally getting their palates tickled by the rich variety of regional Chinese cooking. China is a gigantic country and its culture bespeaks the gigantic diversity. Surely this is the global village social gurus have been predicting and that we’re now in ferment of comprehending, fighting off (xenophobia is universal), and, for some of us, appreciating!
8 China Buffet (eight is a lucky number among the Chinese) used to be my go-to place after the now defunct Forbidden City (that in its day was the first to offer a Far East, not just Chinese, menu). Forbidden City is gone and 8 China has been floundering since The Journey opened in Fishers. Now the owners are trying to recapture their cutting-edge position riding the new popularity of seafood (yes, even among native-born Hoosiers) as our population think “healthy” and “cholesterol-friendly.”
Formosa Seafood Buffet opened today. When I called at eleven this morning the guy who answered the phone told me there was already a long line of people trying to get in. When I got there shortly before noon, the parking lot was full. Yes, it may just give TJ a run for the Chinese-food-lover’s money.
New uniforms outfitted many of the same people I knew from 8 China Buffet but the place was bustling with new staff, too, each cadre distinguished by their distinctive uniform. Maitre d’ staff had white and gold blouses, waiters rich maroon jackets, busboys had plain white shirts, and wandering from table to table were largely Caucasian (they spoke English!) manager surrogates in long white jackets. The latter asked the diners if they needed anything, anything at all, and if we did, the need was quickly taken care of! This is unheard of in two-dollar-sign restaurants!
Five long rows of steam-heated dishes line the central room whose stadium-like spaciousness was not mitigated by pillar, wall or partition. I was reminded me of an Asian market, lines of vendors under an open sky. Close to a half of the offerings were the old standby from 8 China but there were more than a handful of new dishes. At the top of my list were: pork rind in a rich sauce with veggies, spinach buns (the wheat pastry was thin like wet napkin, unlike the Middle Eastern spanokopita), crispy squid (thin pieces so they were tasty-crisp through), steamed white fish (tender and just the other side of mushy), fried “spring” chicken, crispy pork ribs and beef sticks (thin fillets of marinated beef still hot from the grill). One of the front desk staff who knew me from 8 China told me that the weekend brunch include wandering dim sum carts!
Formosa (recalls the old name of Taiwan, meaning “beautiful”) has some ways to go to seriously compete with The Journey but the new dishes were wonderful and all freshly cooked. It certainly has promise and the price, same as that charged at 8 China, might mean the inevitable demise of the older restaurant.
Part of my interest in the new restaurant hinged on how the owners designed a new restaurant. There is the choice of food to serve but beyond that, what other choices do a business owner take to separate himself from the competition? FCB tried to go for elegant. The booths were Chinese rosewood, the napkins were thick cotton oversized hankies matching the waiter’s jackets, the chopstick were long, lacquer-like black heavy plastic sticks. The dining areas were spacious but more people-friendly than the buffet room. You should see the bathroom with OVOToilet fixtures in gold against black faux-marble countertops. Instead of the goop most buffet offer as ice cream they had nine flavors of real ice cream and in addition to the restaurant-supply Chinese cakes good Bundt cakes. (The lemon cake was terrific.)
The staff was perhaps the big difference. The Chinese staff seated the patrons but the waiters and wandering quality-control staff were Caucasian or Hispanics who spoke English. The busboys, of course, were Mexicans. I was most impressed, after the food, by the incredible number of staff floating around. I congratulated the new manager, a former veteran waiter at 8 China. He was decked in ill-fitting Mao jacket but beaming with pride.
Just having a floor manager seemed to me a most unusual feature. Several members of the Chinese family that owns the new restaurant were also floating around, not interacting with the diners (unlike at the old Forbidden City where the owner herself went from table to table) but checking to make sure everything was running smoothly.
Here once again we see the Chinese showing us how they do business! Big and elegant they know how to do but now they’re borrowing a thing or two from American restaurants, like providing staff who speak the language and can explain the dishes and address diners’ needs. Viva diversity and the new global economy!