Let me begin with a proposition: Beyond the environs of world capitals like New York, Los Angeles, and San Franicisco, and ethnic enclaves like Rockville, MD, Chinese food is hands-down the most consistently atrocious ethnic cuisine in America, and it's getting steadily worse. A few observations:
1)Expert Chinese chefs have little economic incentive to emigrate from places like Taipei and Hong Kong. In many cases Chinese restauranteurs and chefs have turned to the culinary arts only after arriving in America.
2)The run of Chinese restaurant owners possess very little pride of craftsmanship. They see the Chinese restaurant as a business pure and simple, no different from the Chinese laundry that it has largely replaced. In consequence they are glad to cut corners and otherwise make life easy on themselves.
3)Mexican-Americans are now doing most of the prep and a good deal of the cooking (I have verified this over and over again with my own eyes -- it's indisputable).
4)Ingredients and sauces are largely purchased from central distributors. Things like egg rolls, spring rolls, dumplings, etc., are invariably purchased frozen.
5)In the hinterlands, at least, the buffet has almost entirely taken over, a development spurred by Americans' insatiable delight in large portions of cheap fat. It would be interesting to know whether the proliferation of Chinese buffets has cut into McDonald's market. I would guess that the answer is "yes."
6)Chinese restaurant owners take a condescending attitude to their Western clientelle (in many cases justified, no doubt). As my wife is Taiwanese, we have often fallen into conversation with waiters and owners who openly ridicule their Western customers and freely admit that they would never eat the food served at their own restaurants. In some cases, they seem to consider the food a kind of practical joke played on dumb Westerners. The assumption is that Westerners are too close-minded or too Philistine to appreciate authentic Chinese cuisine. Thus the phenomenon has arisen of the schizophrenic Chinese restaurant in which one menu is automatically handed to Western customers and an entirely different menu is handed to Asian customers. Even Western customers who may be interested in more authentic Chinese food will not have it offered to them. I've even heard of customers who have had to insist on trying the more authentic food over the objections of waiters.
What's so odd about all of this is that it departs so dramatically from the food culture of Asia. In Taiwan, where I've often visited, the food culture is maniacally competitive, perfectionistic, obsessive...glorious.
Who's to blame? Owners and customers alike. The former have little desire to educate and the latter little desire to be educated. What we have on our hands is an unholy marriage between complaceny and gluttony, the symbol of which is drying mounds of McNuggets in glowing orange corn syrup sauce.
David A. (North Carolina)