It’s awkward to enter a restaurant like Lucky Cricket during a moment of controversy: The staff must carry on and do their jobs, knowing that some of their guests might just be rubberneckers hoping to get a glimpse of the place that its co-owner, travel television star Andrew Zimmern, claimed would save the Midwest from bad Chinese food. The ceilings of the dining rooms are decorated like the woven bamboo sides of a Chinese cricket cage, and that night, it felt like an apt touch: We were trapped here, restaurant staff, suburbanites, and media vultures all, trying to dig both meaning and livelihood from a place suddenly overloaded with the wrong kind of fame. On the night I went, the restaurant was three weeks old and chugging along, with Zimmern reportedly popping in once in a while to expedite in the kitchen.
I came to see Zimmern’s vision for the future with my own eyes — to view his secret weapon in the crusade against faux Chinese-American cuisine. To be absolutely clear, the firestorm around his remarks to Fast Company, wherein he said, “I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest,” was never a conversation about whether a white man could cook Chinese. (Of course people can cook whatever they want — relax.) It was about the strange idea that the food-court Chinese joints of the nation were a problem that needed fixing in the first place. That we the people have been duped by orange chicken and crab rangoon, and he, the world traveler and gourmand, would release us from our ignorance. In the fallout from Zimmern’s remarks, an essay I wrote in 2013 on cultural appropriation was quoted by Eater’s early coverage; writers of subsequent stories asked me for meatier quotes, and I obliged. For my trouble, I got an anonymous call on my cellphone from an earnest Zimmern stan, which made me want to go to Lucky Cricket even more.
Lucky Cricket is ostensibly our escape vessel from the tyranny of shopping-mall cashew chicken — so what does it look like? It looks dark and full of logos, a jumble of confusing signifiers. Adorned with a palm-thatched roof and giant Tiki faces with slushie machines in their mouths, the bar screams, “Rainforest Cafe but also Margaritaville.” Its tables’ surfaces feature iconic exotica album covers, celebrating an American musical genre famous for mixing the sounds of kotos, bongos, and gongs into a pan-Pacific pastiche of sound. That room was the first red flag.
If Lucky Cricket is meant to show us “real” Chinese cuisine, why is there a heavy Tiki element here? The Tiki aesthetic itself is mired in illusion, an invention of post-World War II Hollywood. You get the sense, being there, that you’re in a Disneyfied vision of the East. You see a Thai tuk-tuk (which of course you can sit in), photos of Asian marketplaces so generic it’s hard to place them, and posters that say “HAWAII,” while tucking into a plate of hand-torn noodles inspired by the cuisine of China’s central plateau. If this restaurant were a piece of writing, an editor would call it a “centaur”: two distinct organisms slapped together in an uncanny mess.
By the host station, there was already a wall of merch: T-shirts saying “Get lucky” awkwardly machine-translated into Chinese characters (a point of pride for Zimmern in the Fast Company interview) and a collection of kitschy Tiki mugs. Regardless of any complaints one might have about the rest of the restaurant’s authenticity, at least we know the mugs were manufactured in China. A private party space in the back, with sparse but blood-red decor, was labeled “Kung Food Room.”
In his remarks to Fast Company, Zimmern revealed that the goal of Lucky Cricket, aside from its own propagation as a nationwide chain, is to educate the Midwestern consumer and share the Chinese flavors and refinement that he experienced on his own culinary journey. The menu, he said, would feature his “favorites from around China.” Considering all of the bombast surrounding this opening, I at least expected the food to be decent, to be forced to admit that, yes, it was at least better than PF Chang’s, or even better than the Leeann Chin — Minnesota’s own Chinese-American chain — across the street. Yet the short menu felt incredibly watered down, and there was something fundamentally off about the execution of the majority of the items my group tried.
The dan dan noodles were perhaps the most disappointing item we ordered. The flat egg noodles were a strange improvisation from the thin and cylindrical ones that a diner would normally see in this dish — are Midwesterners not used to spaghetti? To make matters more dire, the noodles were overdone to an Easy Mac consistency. The ground pork topping, meant to carry tang from pickled greens and numbing spice from ground Sichuan peppers, tasted like microwaved, airline economy-class breakfast sausage and was bereft of moisture. If we evaluate Zimmern in his self-appointed role as an educator, he has failed to introduce the dish properly.
Another basic item, the fried rice, was minimally and unevenly seasoned, absent of any crisp or wok-induced char. Even the bits of char siu, which one would normally expect to contribute some flavor, were tasteless. The dish required more than a little dousing with soy sauce and chile oil, provided to the table in Lucky Cricket-branded bottles. (The typeface may look familiar to fans of the late food magazine Lucky Peach.) More compelling were the Stony’s Flyhead lettuce wraps with ground pork, tofu, and loads of chopped garlic chives and an eggplant duo, one portion deep-fried and the other glazed with soy sauce and chiles. Both dishes were openly borrowed from other Chinese restaurants: Happy Stony Noodle in Queens, New York, and Peter Chang Cafe in Glen Allen, Virginia.
That the kitchen’s interpretation of the basics of Chinese meals — noodles and rice — were remarkably deficient is telling: So much went into the over-the-top aesthetic of the place, yet the details, those nuances that would supposedly shame every Panda Express cook in the nation, were actually worse for the wear. If Zimmern hadn’t set expectations so high on the realness scale, perhaps one would have forgiven the kitchen for its mishandling of building-block Chinese dishes. But if you can’t do noodles and rice, maybe try barking up someone else’s tree.
According to his Instagram, Zimmern occasionally checks in on the restaurant, though surely he’s not the one sending out those plates (nor would anyone reasonably expect him to). But if he were, perhaps that would be even more troubling, considering his claims of expertise. What Zimmern said during his video interview with Fast Company clarified for many what his intentions for the restaurant, for which he is a business partner, would be. And it’s not appreciation for the countless Chinese-American restaurateurs and cooks who adapted their cuisines to meet American palates where they were. Those pioneers did this for the sakes of their livelihoods and families, working day and night hawking General Tso’s chicken and sweet-and-sour pork so their kids could go to college. It’s hard to watch a well-resourced and connected outsider like Zimmern denigrate their contributions to American food culture while intending to profit off of the same.
Call me optimistic or naive, but I don’t think that the diners of Middle America, an increasingly diverse and worldly bunch, would be satisfied with an experience that is actually worse than food-court Chinese — as if a few aesthetic distractions like giant Tiki faces and Google-translated Chinese would make the experience feel more “real,” whatever that means. It’s hard to leave the restaurant with a strong impression of what it wants from you: It carries kitschy, mildly racist irony in one hand, and an argument for its own expertise in the other. That said, the vision of authenticity that Zimmern and his partners are peddling here exists in tension with a clear desire to filter it out of fear that Middle America can’t handle the good shit. And say what you will about Panda Express, but at least the fried rice is seasoned there.
Soleil Ho is a Minneapolis-based writer and podcaster, who is moving to California next year to be the dining critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Katie Cannon is a Minneapolis-based photographer.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan