Those of you who read my Sunday in Chinatown column regularly know that I dine in New York’s most famously ethnic enclave multiple times per week. Ultimately, I’d like to say that I’ve had a meal in every restaurant in Chinatown… a tough task to tackle, but one I love working on.
This week, I decided to give éº¦å½“åŠ³ (roughly translated: McDonalds) a chance. I’d heard a lot about in the past – its beef, chicken, and regularly updated selection of sauces are known the world over. It’s a restaurant that’s taken great care to plant itself unassumingly within the limits of Chinatown, though I was still able to locate it… and I couldn’t keep away.
Chinatown is known for its sauces – there are thousands of them, it seems, utilizing nearly every spice you’d ever imagine. In fact, you could likely spend your entire life chasing them down, each one offering you a uniquely flavorful experience. In my research, I learned that McDonalds Corp. announced the arrival of a slew of new sauces – two of them asian influenced – back in 2011. I tasked myself with sampling both of them alongside two Chinatown staples – chicken and beef.
1. Sweet ‘n Sour sauce
Many culinary historians suggest that sweet and sour sauce originated from the Chinese province of Hunan. Originally a mixture of weakened vinegar and sugar, it has morphed over the years into the sauce we know and love so much today. McDonalds’ attempt to reinvent this timeless sauce fell flat, though it certainly was not entirely unenjoyable. So, if you find yourself in the mood for a strangely thick, honey-like goo whose sweetness rivals that of the richest european chocolates, order the 4-piece ‘Chicken McNuggets’ ($1.59) and pair it with sweet and sour sauce. It will certainly be food.
2. Sweet Chili sauce
Tracing its origins back to Thailand, the land of smiles, is the next stop on our tour – sweet chili sauce. Traditionally made of chilis and sweetened with fruit, McDonalds boldly decided to sidestep any concern for health, replacing fruit with common table sugar. With a bit of cayenne pepper and a dash of dried red peppers, McDonalds’ sweet chili sauce takes form and, like the sweet and sour sauce, ultimately fell short.
In fact, its flavor was nearly indistinguishable from the Chinese-influenced sweet and sour sauce, a crime likely punishable by ‘cooking oil torture’ in the proud country of Thailand. Still, I’m sure there’s an audience for it. So, if you’re in the mood for sweet and sour sauce, but want to try to convince yourself that you’re eating Thai food, get yourself a McDouble ($1.69) and load the sweet chili sauce on. Add a ‘Coca Cola’ to the picture, and you’ve got yourself a meal that, if nothing else, will make you not hungry anymore.
On the surface, McDonalds seems like a relatively authentic Chinese experience. Neon-lit Mandarin characters dominate an Asian-influenced facade that might not be out of place in downtown Hong Kong. Like many other Chinatown restaurants, it prides itself on using nearly every part of the chicken in some way, though McDonalds manages to do it with one single dish – Chicken McNuggets. Finally, McDonalds has made a sincere, albeit lackluster effort to offer pseudo-Asian sauces.
However, even still, the restaurant simply does not stack up against the neighborhood’s real restaurants, due mostly to the fact that McDonalds is not actually an Asian restaurant. In fact, if you find yourself in Chinatown, you’re probably better off going almost anywhere else… unless it’s March, of course, when McDonalds brings out the shamrock shake: a creamy, minty drink not yet available in Chinatown’s other restaurants.
One last note: we’d love to wish you all a very merry April Fool’s! Next week, we’ll be back with our regularly scheduled column – one that reviews an actual Asian restaurant, of course. McDonalds, we meant no harm. I’m not ashamed of those 4am nights huddled in the corner of a Mickey D’s, squinting in pain as I take down a large order of French fries under those eternally blinding fluorescent lights.