Mom-and-pop restaurants are a-plenty in China — straight-up dives whose only characteristics are cheap and dirty. A lot of times they don’t even have real names, their signs simply stating 成都小吃 (Chengdu xiaochi, Chengdu small eats) or 家常菜 (jia chang cai, home-style food). They serve more or less the same food — staple cold dishes, standard meat and vegetable stir-fries, stir-fried noodles, fried rice. They serve what their names imply (except in the case of Chengdu xiaochi, which don’t actually serve authentic snacks from Chengdu, but just generic quick dishes that have become ubiquitous all across China).
If it helps, just think of Chinese takeouts in the U.S. In fact, I’m pretty sure they are based on these 成都小吃 and 家常菜 places, right down to the stark decor, fluorescent/dull lighting, identical menus and convenience. Plus they are almost always run by immigrants. Of course, the main difference is the food on offer and the takeout containers. Don’t judge me if I say that, sometimes, I crave American-Chinese takeout. Like fried chicken wings and wonton crackers. The stuff my Chinese parents never make and only Chinese takeouts in the U.S. (and maybe other Western countries?) can make. In fact, I’ve often wondered how an American-Chinese takeout joint would fare in China. Would laowais* appreciate greasy comfort fare that isn’t in the form of a burger or pasta or sandwich, but is instead a bastardized version of the cuisine of the very country in which they live?
I can’t speak for others, but I probably would! And finally a place in Shanghai has opened to answer my question. I’m not sure about their concept of an upscale Chinese takeout that isn’t a takeout or cheap, but beggars can’t be choosers. I’m just glad it’s not in Beijing, which would make it hard to fight my craving for an American-style fried egg roll. Those things are awful. But I still want one (two).
* Obviously, the Chinese would hate it.