The Chairman (Downtown Los Angeles) Review
The Chairman is a small restaurant that once upon a time was a food truck hailing from the streets of San Francisco. Their main schtick basically fuses Chinese mantou with tacos (because new exotic breads has gotta be the quickest path to a unique fusion-y concoction), and their fare draws upon the Asian palette of flavors — Miso glazes stuff, black pepper hangs out with brisket, bok choy exists, etc.
Also they do bowls if avoiding carbs is your thing, and fries if it ain’t because come on, who doesn’t like fries?
They serve up perfectly fine Asian-inspired food truck food doing bao as tacos at $4.25 a pop.
There, done. That’s my review. Now here’s why I’m really writing about this place:
I just don’t think a restaurant that does Chinese-inspired cuisine invoking a dictator who’s policies were responsible for the death of 30 to 70 million Chinese people is a good idea.
Like, dog, even on the low end, Chairman Mao is working with a 5x multiplier on the final solution.
So to walk through it:
1. It’s kinda weird to take an iconic image of Chairman Mao and turn him into a cute cuddly panda bear.
I think this trivializes the man himself and I think that trivializing dictators is Mostly Not Good. On the other hand, one might argue that doing so is a way of mocking Mao’s image and legacy, a little like how Disney turned Donald Duck into Hitler for their war flicks.
However, their website, hailthechairman.com (as in “All hail Chairman Mao”) makes somewhat flippant reference to using “recipes from the Little Red Cookbook” and that they are “leading the Culinary Great Leap Forward,” which doesn’t make me think they’re trying for sly political commentary.
For clarity, The Little Red Book is a book of a bunch of quotations from Mao. Although not filled with the level of rhetoric as, say, Mein Kampf, it occupies a similar spot as an iconic tome of a, let’s say, controversial political party.
The Great Leap Forward was a four-year campaign to try and transform China from an agrarian society into an industrialized one. That campaign led to 18 to 55 million deaths. A lot of those people starved to death.
2. It’s also weird for a restaurant to claim they’re part of the “Culinary Great Leap Forward” when during the actual Great Leap Forward, a bunch of people literally starved to death.
At the very least, I do not think it’s good marketing to invoke the deadliest famine in history when you’re advertising a place that sells food, in the same way I don’t think an auto glass repair shop should advertise specials on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
3. The head chef and graphics guy not being Chinese makes this a little bit weird too.
Chef Hiroo Nagahara is Japanese, and James Jean, the graphics guy, is Taiwanese-American.
I fully believe in their right to use the iconography they do and have no problem with that because that’s the 1st Amendment baby and fuck yeah freedom of expression.
But it feels just an teensy-tiny bit weird that people who’s families were (likely) not directly affected by Mao’s actions as a dictator are invoking his whole steez for their restaurant, Japan being Not China, and Taiwan (if you ask the Taiwanese) also being Not China.
To be clear — I don’t think you have to belong to a country to invoke their iconography, but I do think it’s simply prudent to do your homework and try and understand the implications of the things you write on, say, your website.
4. Finally, it’s definitely weird when you substitute the Chairman with a comparable dictator from the same time period.
I just don’t think I would get very far if I opened, say, a hip new fusion matzo ball soup place called The Führer, and my logo was a German shepherd with a little mustache performing a little doggy a sieg heil.
And then on my website, I said we were making “Mein Kampf-ort food” at a “Ho-low cost!”
Like, I believe there would be at least a couple thinkpieces about my restaurant. I have to imagine that, say, an LA Times article announcing my arrival would make some comment about my choice of logo.
I’ve walked by The Chairman many times over the past couple years, and every time I do, I find myself pondering about why I feel so weird about it.
I guess it bums me out that the reason my dad fled China to come here as a political refugee can be so flippantly splashed all over a restaurant, and nobody seems to think it’s weird or in any degree of poor taste.
To wit, out of their 235 Yelp reviews, literally only one brings up that “maybe the guy responsible for more deaths than any other leader in the 20th century is not a great restaurant theme.” That particular four-star review review ends on a hopeful note, reassuring readers that “at least you won’t starve to death like the millions of Chinese peasants under the actual Chairman” and that he “would come back though.”
The only other person to mention Mao noted that the Communist decor was “a fun idea!” Another reviewer said the restaurant was “adorable and vibrant communist panda themed as well which made us giggle lol.”
But after my countless ambulatory musings, I conclude that I am not “offended” by The Chairman, though I believe there are literally millions of people with totally reasonable grounds to be very angry at this place. I’m not about to protest the place, nor do I warn people away from it.
Instead, I find myself wishing we lent equal weight to the death tolls from left-wing dictatorships as we do right-wing ones, that the hordes of Yelpers considered the Communist-inspired decor as something beyond simply “adorable,” and that there was some evidence that either the head chef or graphic designer took the time to consider the implications of invoking the iconography of a man who starved millions to death before plastering it all over their truck and restaurant.
But mostly, I wish we stopped fucking doing this Chinese bao as tacos thing. The fluffy soft texture of steamed buns does not retain its contents well, is way too filling, and makes everything mushy and messy (especially when you pair it with pork belly).
By the fucking way, Chinese food already has a tortilla-equivalent, which gets used in Peking Duck or Mu Xu Pork, which are actually Asian tacos I can get behind and, surprise surprise, are hard as shit to find good versions of. How about we get that figured out first before we traipse off into bullshit fusion territory where you geniuses have concluded the best way to combine the cuisine of two cultures from opposite ends of the globe is to use Chinese hot dog buns to make shitty tacos.
2.5 / 5 Stars