Home > Eating, New York City, North America > Ollie’s (Oct. 2012): A Morningside Heights Tour of China’s Best

Ollie’s (Oct. 2012): A Morningside Heights Tour of China’s Best

Authors: Victor, Monte, Steven, and Tad
Restaurant: Ollie’s
Chef: I have absolutely no idea.

Date: October 4, 2012

Steven: So Tad has this weird thing where he calls non-French, American, and Japanese food “ethnic food.” He doesn’t eat it if he can help it, because he thinks it’s cheap or bad or something like that. We’ve been trying to tell him that the very concept of “ethnic food” is kind of silly, especially in places like New York where cuisine is such an interesting mix of so many different cultures.

Tad: It is true that I rarely eat “ethnic” food. When money is not an issue, why would you deliberately seek out food that brands itself as cheap. Naturally, when these guys invited me along to get Chinese food, I was reticent. But after much cajoling and the suggestion that I was missing out on a large class of good food, I agreed to go, under the condition that the restaurant be 100% authentic, and the food was of the very highest quality of its type.

Monte: Of course, we took Tad to the only place in town that was authentic and classy—this was definitely not Imperial Garden.

Outside the restaurant:

Monte: “I love this bright clean sign. It makes me feel welcome. Like a ‘welcome home’ sign.”

Steven: “Welcome home to a bizarro-world where your grandma makes bad food. And your friends rudely joke about the food.”

Tad: “Wait what? Bad food? I thought you guys said this place was authentic!?”

Victor: “It is! Look! It’s a Chinese noodle shop… and grill!”

Inside:

Monte: Classy modern design inside reminds me of the Wynn in Vegas.

Ken: “What are we doing here? Why are we supporting this type of business?”

Victor: “Dude. come on. You’re gonna have fun. We always have fun here. This is going to be a GREAT time!”

Steven: “Some of my best memories of meals were here. For some reason, Ollie’s is conducive to bonding.”

Tad: “You guys are scaring me…”

Monte: “Why would you be scared of having fun?”

Food:

Examples of the delicious food! (Take note of these famously authentic Chinese dishes, such as “Sweet & Sour Chicken”, “Moo Shu Chicken”, and “General Tso’s Chicken”!

Monte: “Guys, don’t you think it takes a very talented kitchen to be able to cook a chicken so many ways? I’m hella impressed.”

Tad: “I have to admit, I am impressed that there are so many different preparations of chicken here. The restaurants I usually go to only have a single chicken dish in the tasting menu. So what do I order? Is there a prix fixe menu?”

Steven: “Just have a bit of what we have. Chinese food is usually eaten family-style.”

Ken: “I am actually mad at you guys for getting me here. I would never come here if it weren’t for you.”

Appetizer: Steamed Chicken Dumplings

Victor: “Sigh. Looking at these dumplings makes me incredibly sad. So, so sad. They’re so… puny.”

Monte: “Presentation’s a little sloppy.”

Steven: “The consistency of both the filling and the skin is like fresh paper-mache. Adding flour to the filing of a dumpling is the really authentic way of increasing filling size without raising the cost.”

Tad: “You know, I have to say, I had my doubts. But this is not bad. The whole dumpling is tender. And the dipping sauce adds just the right amount of savoriness to the dish. Are you guys familiar with the Japanese term umami? It refers to that savory, meaty flavor in dishes. There is no English word for it.”

[Victor makes a face behind his hand, almost like he is about to spit out the dumpling he ate]

Ken: “I hate you guys.”

[Victor spits out half the dumpling]

Appetizer: Char Siu Bao (BBQ Pork Bun)

Monte: “Some places try really hard to make a fluffy light bun to delight the senses and fail. I love that Ollie’s isn’t like that, though, and just unpretentiously serves a straight-up soggy mushy bun.”

Steven: “The food one serves says a lot about what one is thinking during the preparation. This bun tells me that the cook was thinking, ‘Hey, I just opened this pack of microwaveable pork buns. I will now put it in the microwave.'”

Appetizer: XiaoLongBao (Soup Dumplings)

Steven: “Oh xiao long bao…let me try this. [Puts one in his mouth] Ew…uh…uag… [spits it back out on his plate]. This is…wow..hilariously bad. It tastes like medicine. Like the soup itself actually tastes like medicine.”

Victor: “Let me try it…” [puts one in his mouth, chews, spits it out, and laughs loudly]. “OH MY GOD. That is horrible? What is that?! That’s like the worst one I’ve ever tried! There’s NO WAY it’s a xiao long bao!”

[Victor: I actually couldn’t stop laughing because that was so bad :(.]

Steven: “This is worse than frozen xiao long bao that has been microwaved.”

Ken: “Wow…this is probably the worst xiao long bao I have ever had.”

Tad: “Seriously you guys are being dramatic; it isn’t bad. In fact, I have never had soup contained inside a small bread pocket like this before. From a culinary imagination point of view, this is really innovative. It surprises and challenges our preconceptions. It’s modern.”

[Monte spits his out as well.]

Steven: “What REALLY bothers me is the medicine flavor.”

Ken: “Yeah, that flavor’s really familiar. I’ve had it before….what is it?”

Monte: “Robitussin.”

Ken: “I think it’s spinach!”

Monte: “It’s most definitely not spinach. Try fungus.”

Tad: “You guys are being really culturally insensitive right now.”

Main Course: Beef Noodle Soup

Steven: “Okay, well, I actually can’t make fun of this dish. It is a pretty solid interpretation of stewed beef noodles.”

Victor: “Yeah, that’s actually decent! I would actually order that!”

Ken: “I definitely prefer ramen to this.”

Tad: “Yeah, this is pretty good. I like ramen in general, so this was fine.”

Steven: “Wait, isn’t ramen ethnic food? It’s Japanese, but it is cheap as well.”

Tad: “I guess it’s not about the pricing? I don’t know. Ramen has been branded very well in New York; places like Ippudo and Totto have quite a following among foodies. I think it has become food that I think of as familiar. And people think of it as more elevated, as in people can distinguish between well-made ramen and bad ramen. When food becomes mainstream, I no longer think of it as ethnic food.”

Steven: “Well, I think that is my problem with the term ‘ethnic food.’ It implies that there is this mainstream food and then there are certain cultural foods that are ‘ethnic.’ Really, all food is ethnic food, even those with a great deal of fusion. It is a food or dish with a history, linked to a specific culture. In America, this ethnicity may belong to a specific immigrant group, or to a blend of different groups. Or, to look at it another way, in America, there really isn’t such a thing as ethnic food. Just food.”

Main Course: Shredded Chicken with Bean Sprouts Noodle Soup

[Victor ate all the chicken and bean sprouts but left most of the noodles untouched for this dish.]

Ken: “Dude, you’re leaving all that untouched? That’s a huge waste…”

Victor: “I know, but it was an easy way to get some chicken as well as a few noodles. WHITE FLOUR, man. Too many carbs without the nutritional benefit to justify it! If this were whole wheat, I’d totally finish it.”

Monte: “Hahaha….oh my sides hurt…we’re at a noodle shop!….hehehe…”

Main Course: Soy-marinated Chicken and Wonton Soup

Monte: “Salt and Chicken, two very simple but underappreciated flavors. The 4 wontons are very petite, about the size of a quarter, so they don’t make you feel full, which in turn don’t make you feel bloated. Thanks Chef! Also, the chef masterfully adds a little green onion to lighten up the dish with a fresh fragrance. I certainly would’ve never thought of this stroke of genius.”

Main Course: Char Siu Fan (BBQ Pork with Rice)

Ken: “So this dish is good. It is the only one I will order here.”

Steven: “Yeah, it is totally legit. This is a pretty authentic dish.”

Ken: “You guys can try a piece if you want.”

Tad: “Okay, so going back to our previous conversation about ethnic food, what do you think about the impulse to condemn a restaurant because it is inauthentic? Doesn’t that give one ethnicity the exclusive right to judge a food? And doesn’t that make this a legitimate categorization? And… should it be that way from a normative viewpoint?”

Steven [Takes a piece of Ken’s BBQ Pork]: “I think you have a point there. There is a tendency for, for example, Chinese immigrants to write off a restaurant because it is ‘Americanized.’ In that sense, the immigrant communities are just as guilty of perpetuating this notion of an ‘ethnic’ food. Full disclosure, we actually think Ollie’s is pretty bad.”

Tad [Also takes a piece of the BBQ]: “Yeah, I figured that, although I like the food here.”

Victor [Takes a piece of Ken’s BBQ]: “I’m not sure that’s how things should ideally be, normatively speaking. I can see why ‘ethnic’ food might give one ethnicity the exclusive right to judge a food right now, but I’d really hope that, later on, these ‘ethnic’ foods become so widespread that everyone can go ahead and do a good job judging the foods.”

Steven [Takes another piece]: “So then there is a question: if food appeals to a broader audience, becoming in the process less authentic, does that make it any less good? I don’t know. It’s a hard question.”

Monte [Takes a piece of Ken’s BBQ]: “There can be unauthentic food that is delicious (the lambretta at Xe May—coconut curry lamb in banh mi—is really good but would never be seen in Vietnam), but there is something to be said about authenticity lending a level of comfort that makes the food that much more enjoyable due to its familiarity and ability to bring back memories of childhood.”

Ken: “Um… okay, you can try my food, but stop taking all of it.”

Victor [Takes another piece]: “We’re just trying it! Plus, it’s delicious. Anyway, I don’t know. Hmm. I can see that authenticity would appeal to specific ethnic groups because it evokes certain flavors that these people may have grown up with, but I think everyone’s entitled to his or her own preferences for flavors. I think authenticity is important if you have expectations of a specific food, but otherwise you might not really need authenticity there. I’d guess that the importance of authenticity will decline with time.”

Monte [Tries one more piece of Ken’s BBQ]: “I still think it’s important to remember traditions though and where our food comes from, as part of a cultural identity. For example, a lot of Vietnamese soups or Japanese yakitori are cooked with offal because the people are historically so poor and had to make use of every precious part of the animal. I don’t think this means that a foie yakitori is not delicious, but I would hope the cultural influence isn’t completely lost and unappreciated.”

Tad [Takes another piece]: “What about if we think of it like everything is ethnic food, and your preference is based on how you grew up? There is no inherent value judgment about food just because of authenticity, but different groups are entitled to their own preferences?”

Steven [Takes the last piece]: “Okay, I guess that makes sense. So ethnic food is fine, as long as there is no association of worse, or foreign, or cheap?”

Ken: “WTF? You guys ate all of my food!”

Victor: “I don’t know… I guess. Still, it bothers me how people like to call lots of Asian food as ‘ethnic’ food but seem not to call, say, Japanese food or Spanish food that. Even if there’s no negative association, what’s the point of having that difference? People also care about authenticity of Japanese food, authenticity of Spanish food, and so on, right?”

Ken: “I’m never coming back here again.”

Monte: “Oh if you’re still hungry we have more of the xiao long bao still sitting on the table.”

Ken: “You guys suck.”

  1. October 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    i agree that authenticity shouldn’t be associated w/ an intrinsic value judgement. i also don’t see a correlation between authenticity and ethnic food. to me, the ethnicity of a dish or type of food is a cultural description of the origin, inspiration, characteristics, etc. of the food whereas authenticity is more of a normative judgement (you wouldn’t say one Chinese person is “more Chinese” than another Chinese person)

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