Clean eating and white-washing of traditional ethnic foods seems to be the latest fad, with Andrew Zimmern’s “Lucky Cricket”, Gordon Ramsay’s “Lucky Cat”, and Arielle Haspel’s “Lucky Lee’s” popping up claiming to serve authentic Asian cuisine but with a healthier twist. Honestly I applaud these three restaurateurs and their very “lucky” establishments, it takes a special kind of arrogance to open an “authentic” Asian restaurant with no Asian staff members while claiming to be a “cleaner” and “healthier” alternative to traditional counterparts run by immigrant families.
While this theme of cultural appropriation through food is clearly very popular for entrepreneurs, there’s one restaurant in Orange County, California that has been on this trend since 1987 — far before it was considered mainstream.
Ho Sum Bistro, located in Newport Beach, serves up what they call “Califoriental” cuisine — a fusion of fresh Californian ingredients and Chinese dishes. According to their menu, “Ho Sum” translates to “good heart”, “healthy” and “kind” in Cantonese — although they also seem to use this as a play on words for “wholesome.” The restaurant is owned by Edward Joseph O’Neill, who made local news in 2005 after he was taken to the Orange County Jail for allegedly shooting his gun at a group of young beach goers.
And lucky for us, Ho Sum Bistro was close enough for a quick visit from the NextShark office.
The restaurant is relatively small, decked out in paintings of sandy beaches and American flags by local artists and a TV in the corner showing old white men playing golf. As we walk in a Beatles song plays softly in the background. I’m all for “don’t judge a book by its cover” but I have to note that at this point, my expectations were incredibly and impossibly low.
My two co-workers and I sit on the barstools and it becomes painfully obvious — we’re the only Asian people in the entire restaurant — it’s a great start.
As if the massive “Califoriental” sign outside wasn’t enough, they have somehow incorporated the word “oriental” into every crevice of their unimaginative menu: The Califoriental Chicken Broth, Oriental Artichoke, Califoriental Lo Mein, Califoriental rice… I suppose they have to make up for the lack of Asian faces somehow, but this really ain’t it.
According to the waiter, they are supposedly “famous” for their salads so we order that along with some fried rice, pot stickers and vegetable lo mein — because it would be extremely difficult to mess up a salad, fried rice, pot stickers and some noodles. Or so we thought.
On their menu, Ho Sum Bistro states: “All of our dishes are prepared thoughtfully and health consciously. We promise that no MSG, preservatives, or unnatural flavor enhancers are used.” By “health conscious” I’m almost certain they meant “with zero seasoning” because all three dishes we ordered had absolutely no flavor. I’m not sure if the owner of this establishment is just very afraid of salt and pepper, but the noodles are painfully dry and bland, the salad has no crunch to it and is, again, bland, and finally the potstickers are again, bland. As we all tried our best to get through as much of the unseasoned cardboard-like food as possible, I couldn’t help but wonder how far away the nearest Panda Express was.
All jokes aside, the menu at Ho Sum Bistro could hardly be described as “Chinese” cuisine — the price is far too high for the quality of food they serve (five potstickers for $9?!) and frankly, their unseasoned dishes taste like a non-Asian person’s first attempt at making something that vaguely resembles Asian food. They also served the lo mein with a butter knife sitting under the noodles and I’m still trying to figure out why in the world I would need a butter knife for my lo mein.
We tried to wash the dry noodles down with the “Thai Tea Far Out IPA” which was essentially beer that has been dyed orange to mimic Thai tea but tastes like neither good beer nor good Thai tea. Overall, although I hate to be so harsh, the meal was nothing more than a disappointment and we found ourselves quickly leaving what was possibly the whitest “Chinese” restaurant any of us have ever stepped foot into.
Ho Sum Bistro is a classic example of white restaurateurs profiting off of cultures they don’t belong to while framing authentic immigrant-run counterparts as “dirty” or “unhealthy.” And despite countless researchers noting that there is no definitive evidence of MSG having harmful effects on the body, these white-washed, bland dishes masquerading as “Oriental” cuisine also perpetuate the xenophobic belief that authentic Chinese restaurants using MSG are “unclean” and therefore need to be fixed/Westernized.
For Asians living in Western countries, we know just how close traditional dishes are to our cultural and racial identities and we all remember the days of being made fun of for our “smelly” foods. Therefore, to us, restaurants like Ho Sum Bistro are an absolute disgrace. Even if you somehow manage to tolerate their bland food, their ignorance to the outdated and derogatory term “oriental” will surely leave an awful taste in your mouth.