Tasting the Conspiracy, item L0: Introduction

It’s been a long time since I posted about anything except the Bible, hasn’t it? Time to change that up with another series about food. This one’s been kicking around my head for a while, and it’s a silly idea, but let’s roll with it.

Theres a phenomenon in Louisville (AFAICT, pretty much localized here although I’m sure other cities have their own particular variants of it) where the overwhelming majority of Chinese-American takeouts have near-identical menus. OK, the fact that many takeouts have the same stuff on their menu isn’t surprising at all, really, but a bunch of them have the exact same layout, and the exact same items, in the exact same order. It’s a conspiracy! The Menu Conspiracy! Actually, it’s more likely a shared business plan which comes more or less prefab and all you do is insert your own business name on the top and fire up the wok burners. I figured it was, like, some sort of Sysco thing, but the fact that it’s city-specific leans towards these things being put together by local business groups. The Search for General Tso kind of goes into this, that there tend to be Chinese restaurant-syndicates in cities which plan out a healthy geographic dispersal of takeouts and set them all up with the exact same menu.

Be that as it may, not every Chinese-American takeout in Louisville is a conspirator. Most but not all of the many restaurants named “Double Dragon” are in on the Conspiracy. So is China One in Schnitzelburg (but not China 1 in Lyndon) and a Taste of China in Old Louisville. Great Wall in Clifton has what appears to be a standard Conspiracy menu but they’ve reordered my go-to verification point, the lunch specials. You get the idea — it’s formulaic enough to be instantly recognizable.

The Conspiracy restaurants tend to be quite similar (unsurprisingly, since I imagine not only their menu but also their recipes and ingredients are centrally distributed), but they do vary a bit. It occurred to me, though, that I’d only dipped into a small part of their menu. And since their menu is exactly the same everywhere, I can get a line on what several different Chinese takeouts’ specific dishes are like without having to visit them all.

So that’s where this project started, with an ambition to try a full cross-section of the Conspiracy menu, from a single standardized location, presumably adjustable up and down in various qualities but largly unchanged anywhere else you might go in Louisville. I’m starting with the lunch specials, because I have a horrible weakness for the lunch specials. They’re a great way to get a lot of food in your belly for cheap. And they’re where I first noticed the conspiracy, because they’re the page of the menu I always looked at most closely.

My choice of location is Double Dragon in Germantown Square (I have no idea why Louisville has so many Double Dragons; other than all being Chinese and many of them having the same menu, they appear to be completely unrelated), because it is both extremely convenient to me and actually quite good within the limits of the form. China One is even closer to me, but (with one notable exception which I will get to in time) I have never enjoyed their food quite as much as Double Dragon’s.

Since I’ll be having a bunch of lunch specials, it’s worth talking about what the lunch special entails. It usually runs about $5.50 at Double Dragon; that tends to have possible variation of about $0.50 upwards or $1.00 downwards at other places, possibly with variation by individual dish, and it consists of a farly generous serving of some entree with fried rice and an egg roll. Some places swap the egg roll out for a soda or a crab rangoon, but the fried rice is sacred and is served in the same box as the entree. This is significant because, in judging these meals, one of my major criteria is how well the sauce complements the rice.

So, the project is already underway, to be honest, and I have a few takeout lunches already under my belt, but the first actual review can wait a little while.

Edited to add: the list in progress, from worst to best, with grades:

    • L1: Sweet and Sour Chicken: If you want nuggets, go to McDonalds. They even have sweet-and-sour sauce. F
    • L4: Sweet and Sour Pork: At least they’ve got texture, but, still, not terrifically imaginative. D–
    • L11: Chicken Chow Mein: Around here, “chow mein” is basically chop suey. Who thought big ol’ hunks of cabbage made a good stirfry? Shredded cabbage is fine, but, please, no enormous leaves. That’s just bad, and your bland white sauce doesn’t help. D
    • L12: Shrimp Chow Mein: Shrimp is tastier than chicken, to my mind. Not enough tastier than chicken to actually make much of a difference, though. D
    • L14a: Chicken Lo Mein: Not a bad dish in and of itself, but serving it alongside rice puts it in the Hall of Starchy Horrors. And chicken is the single blandest protein one could use to mitigate this carb-fest. D
    • L10: Moo Goo Gai Pan: Button mushrooms! And bland sauce! Two of my least favorite things! At least the chicken was OK, and snow peas are always welcome. D
    • L14b: Beef Lo Mein: Beef improves on the blandness of chicken for this starch-bomb, but, still, it’s a badly balanced lunch special when all’s said and done. D+
    • L14b: Shrimp Lo Mein: Shrimp has a textural contrast which slightly ennobles lo mein, but, still, just like it’s beef and chicken variants, there’s not much to be done about this dish’s imbalance. D+
    • L14*: Roast Pork Lo Mein: It’s not on themenu at Double Dragon, but roast pork is the best protein, hands down. It’s not actually enough better than the others to bring this flawed lunch special up a letter grade, but it gets the highest mark of the lo mein variants. D+
    • L18: Chicken with Broccoli There’s only one protein worth pairing with broccoli, and it’s not chicken. This variant hides so far down the menu out of shame. D+
    • L3: Beef with Broccoli Blandly meeting minimum levels of stereotypical Chineseness with a generic brown sauce, protein, and vegetable. C–
    • L2: Shrimp with Lobster Sauce: Rescued from the doldrums of flavorlessness mostly by the voluminousness of the sauce which provides a pleasant accessory to rice. C–
    • L5: Chicken with Mixed Vegetable: A more adventurous mix of veggies in the brown sauce raises this a cut above a more pedestrian stir-fry. C
    • L6: Pepper Steak with Onion: Somewhat monotonous in terms of textural elements, but the onion adds a flavor note which brings the brown sauce into a better place. C
    • L13: Beef with Snow Peas: A fairly ordinary brown sauce, which only gets so good, but a rock-solid pairing of protein and vegetables in terms of flavor and texture. C+
    • L8: Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable: Are the different veggies from L5 because it’s a different day, or because they choose differently if the protein is different? Well, either way, this is cut above the chicken, to my mind. C+
    • L9: Mixed Vegetables: Don’t be fooled! This has protein! It’s tofu, and it’s got that light sear that does good things to tofu’s texture. Otherwise it’s an awful lot like L8 or L5. C+
    • L15: Shrimp with Cashew Nuts: A delightful textural symphony of crunchiness showcasing some fantastic flavor choices, all covered in a basic brown sauce. The brown-sauce preparation never much excites, but, this is one of the more extraordinary examples of it. B-
    • L7: Chicken with Garlic Sauce: A pleasing variety of vegetables and a livelier take on the traditional brown sauce raises this item to stand at the top of the crowd of straightforward, basic stir-fries in simple sauces. B–
    • L16: Kung Po Chicken: A perennial classic, and with good reason. Lively sauce, a good range of textural and flavor elements, and maintaining balance by not being too sweet or salty or otherwise overwhelming. B+

About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

23 Responses to Tasting the Conspiracy, item L0: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L1: Sweet and Sour Chicken | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  2. gsanders says:

    Fascinating. I’ve read part of Fortune Cookie Chronicles which got into this some, but in Search of General Tso sounds like it’s even more focused.

  3. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L2: Shrimp with Lobster Sauce | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  4. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L3: Beef with Broccoli | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  5. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L4: Sweet and Sour Pork | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  6. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L5: Chicken with Mixed Vegetable [sic] | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  7. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L6: Pepper Steak with Onion | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  8. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L7: Chicken with Garlic Sauce | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  9. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L8: Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable [sic] | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  10. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L9: Mixed Vegetables | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  11. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L10: Moo goo gai pan | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  12. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L11: Chicken Chow Mein | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  13. Pingback: Escaping the Conspiracy, item L12 (or L2a): Shrimp Chow Mein | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  14. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L13: Beef with Snow Peas | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  15. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14a: Chicken Lo Mein | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  16. Pingback: Escaping the Conspiracy, item L14*/L11c: Chicken Lo Mein | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  17. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14b: Beef Lo Mein | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  18. Pingback: Exploring the Conspiracy, item L14c: Shrimp Lo Mein | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  19. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14: Shrimp with Cashew Nuts | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  20. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L16: Kung Po Chicken | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  21. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L17: Hunan Chicken | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  22. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L18: Chicken with Broccoli | The Ecclesiastical Revue

  23. Pingback: Tasting the Conspiracy, item L19: General Gao’s Chicken | The Ecclesiastical Revue

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