April 04, 2008
Walk into any store-front Chinese restaurant and order a fried rice variant, be it shrimp, chicken, pork, or combination, and you'll get almost exactly the same thing, regardless of where you are. Rice, cubed carrots, peas, some onion perhaps, soy sauce, and the meat of your choice. Oh, and soy sauce for color and flavor. The portion will be sufficiently large to fill you and then some, for less than $10. Probably less than half that at lunchtime.
McDonald's has made an industry out of serving you the same tasteless meal regardless of which of the billions and billions of franchises you visit. Consistency makes them popular; there's none of the "I don't know what to get" angst at McDonald's. Fried rice is the quiet consistency meal at budget Chinese restaurants. For that matter, most of the menu is consistent from one Chinese restaurant to the next.
What sets the Chinese consistency apart, to my way of thinking, from McDonald's or any of the national fast food chain marquees, is that they are universally independent. They tend to be family run affairs rather than an organized collection of locations leveraging economies of scale.
They are an example of emergent behavior, of bottom up organization. Somehow the word went out that Americans expect rice, carrot, peas, onion, soy sauce, and a bit of chicken, shrimp, or pork in their fried rice. Which leaves me with this question: did the Chinese restauranteurs shape our expectation of fried rice, or did we shape their menu offering through demand?