The idea came to Fung Lam in a moment of desperation. The New York-born American and his business partner were in Shanghai, exhausted after nearly a year of trying to launch a new salads-and-sandwiches restaurant. Months of walking streets, identifying neighbourhoods, buying equipment and negotiating rent had produced just short of nothing.
He was spent. He was in acute need of comfort food.
"I was really missing home, just feeling down. And I came in and said, 'Let's get orange chicken and egg rolls and fried rice and just drink some beers.' I was craving American Chinese food."
Problem was, he couldn't find it. "There's 23 million people in this city, at least 1,000 pizzerias, every variation of burger that you could think of, a hot dog shop in front of bars – and you're telling me there's not one American Chinese food restaurant?" he says. "And then a lightbulb went off: Dude, why don't we just do that?"
A year later, on the fourth floor of a building jammed with restaurants in downtown Shanghai, Mr. Lam and co-founder David Rossi are mixing up sauces and deep-frying cream cheese in what they believe is the only restaurant of its kind in China. Fortune Cookie, as they've called it, is an American Chinese takeout joint, dressed in upscale design but jammed with the tastes of a culinary tradition much transformed since it was transplanted to North America 150 years ago.
On offer: shrimp toast (white bread topped with minced shrimp, then deep fried), orange chicken ("double fried to achieve extra crispy and succulent awesomeness"), General Tsao Beef! ("An American classic coming back to its roots"), Tofu Chop Suey ("About as Chinese as apple pie"), not to mention fortune cookies.
They acknowledge it's not the most intuitive of ideas.
"When you get off the plane here the idea of opening another Chinese restaurant in China doesn't make any sense," Mr. Rossi says. "But it's not until you actually live here that you realize that it's actually American food. It's not Chinese food."
But China is increasingly home to American-born Chinese reversing the steps of parents and grandparents who left for the United States decades ago. For some, there's more opportunity today in China than in North America. And Fortune Cookie meets the kind of need only a sweet-and-sour dish in a white takeout box can. Every Saturday around 2 or 3 p.m., the calls flow in, "crazy orders for like seven shrimp rolls and a Crab Rangoon," Mr. Lam says. He can just picture the person on the other end of the line, and the night he's rising from.
"This guy just woke up and has no idea where he is," Mr. Lam says. "He is just dying in bed and needs shrimp rolls. We are fulfilling that."
Getting here wasn't particularly easy. It took months to find a maker of fortune cookies; they are so uncommon in China most locals have no idea how to consume them without getting a mouthful of paper. Suppliers of other necessities, such as the takeout boxes, were so certain the restaurant would flop they demanded cash up front for a big order. The two restaurateurs ended up with 50,000 takeout boxes in their living room.
"We, during the calendar year of 2013, haven't turned our television on because there's no place to sit," Mr. Rossi says.
Training Chinese chefs proved another obstacle. Their knife skills were exquisite. Their knowledge of American Chinese menus was not. Asked if there was any dish that kitchen staff didn't have to be taught to make, Mr. Lam says: "It sounds almost like a joke when I say white rice. But really, white rice was the only thing. The rest, we had to teach them."
The Chinese food that has developed in the U.S. and Canada is the modern product of poor immigrants who, dating back to Gold Rush days, adapted cooking habits to different tastes and different ingredients. Eventually, a North American canon developed, one that is Chinese in origin alone.
To Chinese tongues, some of the American dishes are downright strange. The ingredients used in orange chicken, for example, are better known as "one of the traditional Chinese medicines," says Ge Mingming, Fortune Cookie's chief chef. He received training from Mr. Lam's father, who owns 15 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The sauces Mr. Lam himself makes every morning are family recipes.
The taste they produce is, depending on the audience, delicious, or deliciously bad, or awe-inspiringly bad.
Put Niko Laznek in the first category. He is Slovenian, and declares Fortune Cookie's meals "better than Chinese."
In the latter category, place the British health-care worker who has come on a weekday night with an American friend. She points to the Crab Rangoon, aghast. "That has got to be the worst I have ever heard of. Deep-fried cream cheese! That's a death warrant!" she says. She turns to another plate. "Beef and broccoli you can get here" – in China – "but it's certainly not covered with all this crap."
Her friend leans in. "'Sauce' is the word you're searching for," she says.