In which I postulate that there are several general classes of Chinese restaurants in the New England area, of varying degrees of yumminess.
In order of my personal preference:
* Street Chinese — served with small plates and bowls, food is hot and comes out as soon as it’s off the wok, presentation is more informal and a little scary to non-Asians. But the food is the way you’d expect it to be, true to itself as much as it can be on the other side of the Pacific. Not overcooked, not inadvertently stewed or steamed, each dish with its own distinctive character. Usually you can get interesting vegetable dishes too. Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica. King Fung Garden, Taiwan Cafe in Chinatown.
Upscale Chinese — The places in Chinatown with the giant fish tanks, somewhat gaudy decorations, nicer tables with those round lazy susans on them. The kind of place you’d consider having a Chinese wedding banquet at if it’s big and fancy enough. May have a stage up front for announcements and karaoke. Food comes out fast. East Ocean City in Chinatown comes to mind.
Chinese Outpost — Far from a Chinese epicenter, small restaurants that haven’t fully let their menus be dominated by local tastes, serving up a few good dishes for their friends and “advanced” patrons. May actually have Chinese vegetables. Economically tough to sustain sometimes. South Garden in Merrimack, for example, which serves Dim-Sum in Southern New Hampshire.
Old Guard Pioneering Chinese — A cut above average, these are the places that introduced “real” Chinese food to America, away from Egg Foo Yung and Chow Mein in the 60s. Place like Joyce Chen (sadly gone) and Mary Chung’s near MIT were the leaders of a new movement in authenticity, and they cared. Although we ended up with things like Egg Rolls. Possibly places like China Pearl in Woburn, but I’m not sure how long it’s been around.
Upscale Chinese American — Conscientious use of architecture and decor, sometimes abstracted from authentic Chinese art and imagery. The waitstaff have uniforms, and food is presented somewhat artistically. However, food is in larger chunks (designed to be eaten with forks), breaded, sweetened, and foo-foo’d. American vegetables like peas and brocolli make an appearance, but the food is pleasant enough if you don’t mind everything tasting kind of the same. Bamboo is in this category. Chang Sho in Cambridge too, Lilac Blossom or Chen Yang Li in Nashua. Maybe even the chain P.F. Chang.
Chinese American — the run-of-the-mill Chinese place with a few formica tables, a standardized menu with highly Americanized dishes: General Tso’s Chicken, Sesame Beef, and a million variants thereof. Sometimes has a few good things, or a large buffet. Sugary, coated with flour, and deep fried. All created with variants of the standard “brown sauce flavors”: plum sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chili sauce.
Polynesian Oriental — Egg Foo Yung, Chow Mein, BBQ Pork, Sweet Sour Pork, Pu Pu Platter! With a smoky bar and possibly a lounge scene, with tiny umbrellas in your drinks.