Columbus Iconic: Whither The Lettuce Wrap?

Iconic eats?  P.F. Chang's has made it three years in a row topping the
(614) ColumBest Reader Poll for "Best Asian Restaurant"
I acknowledge that the winners of many of media-sponsored reader polls are as much about name recognition and popularity as it is food quality when it comes to restaurants. That is certainly case with the fairly recently released 2019 edition of the (614) Columbus 2019 ColumBest poll.

But some results just sort of make you shake your head, and perhaps none does it more for me than the now three-year run of P.F. Chang's winning the "Best Asian Restaurant" category in the in the (614) ColumBest poll, claiming the top spot in 2017 when previous winner Haiku closed its doors in late 2016.

Conventional wisdom would make you think a national chain like P.F. Chang's (which has its origins in California in San Francisco and, later Beverly Hills) shouldn't be coming close to placing in these types of polls. Columbus's culinary scene has made wonderful strides over these past three years, with burgeoning coffee, craft beer and now distillery scenes (the latter sporting some great food components); the increasing emergence of upscale and creative eateries; and an increasing palette of international cuisines in general. This evolution has garnered its fair share of national notice - prominent media outlets like Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and Forbes have featured the city in the past six months alone.

Jiu Thai Asian Cafe - while this eatery sports some Thai dishes, the real gold
here lies in its Shaanxi, Xianjiang and Sichuan Chinese dishes
On the Asian side of things, Columbus has more than its fair share of eateries here. Indian and Japanese certainly have a strong presence, and the (614) ColumBest Poll recognizes that fact for the most part (I quibble with the "Sushi" category being a substitute for Japanese, in that sushi is not the exclusive realm of Japanese places these days, and it somewhat leaves out non-sushi oriented places like Tensuke Express, Fukuryu, and Meshikou.)

A Vietnamese Bahn Mi Sandwich from one of the best in the metro: Mi Li Cafe
The lack of a separate Chinese category in the poll is puzzling - the number of Chinese places in the metro is equal to, if not more, than the number of Greek or Cajun eateries (each with their own category) from what I can tell. Also, these eateries have advanced well beyond the Americanized outlets, branching into regional Shaanxi, Sichuan, Dongbei, and Ningxia dishes, among others.

Nepali cuisine has been booming in Columbus, with plenty of delicious
dishes like these Momos from Worthington's Everest Cuisine
Meanwhile, Nepali and Himalayan eateries are especially thriving right now, and other Asian cuisines like Filipino, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese are generally holding steady. So considering all that, why have a generic "Asian" category at all?

I could have ended this musing at this point, but I thought further exploration was needed.  Was Columbus the only major or emerging metro with this distinction? That is, does any other publication associated with any other major city in the U.S. sport either a generic "Asian" category, a nomination of P.F. Chang's as a "Best Of" anything, or even a combination of both?

For my sample, I decided on a mix of thirty cities in the United States that based on my reading are either well-established culinary destinations, up-and-coming scenes, or geographic peers for Columbus itself (if your city is not listed, it's probably a more good than bad thing in this case):

Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Charleston, SC; Chicago, IL; Cincinnati, OH
Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Detroit, MI; Honolulu, HI; Houston, TX
Indianapolis, IN; Las Vegas, NV; Los Angeles; CA; Miami, FL; Milwaukee; WI
New Orleans; LA; New York; NY; Oakland, CA; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia, PA
Pittsburgh, PA; Portland, OR; Richmond, VA; Sacramento, CA; San Francisco, CA
San Diego, CA; San Antonio, TX; Seattle; WA; Tampa, FL; Washington, DC

Before I get to my main findings, a few notes of interest:
  • I couldn’t find any major publications related to Chicago and New York that had major voter polls. With how large and diverse those city's culinary scenes are, polls probably make more sense focused on specific neighborhoods and with neighborhood-oriented publications.
  • Some media sources, similar to the ColumBest poll, had very limited Asian-based categories (Chinese for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Ramen in the Philadelphia Magazine poll, Indian and Sushi for; and Noodles/Ramen and Sushi for the Austin Chronicle.) 
  • Seattle Magazine had no ethnic/nationality categories to speak of in their poll. In contrast, Honolulu Magazine's reader poll proved unique as it focused in on very specific dishes, some of which (Inari Sushi, Mandoo, and Boba Tea, among others) were Asian-oriented. 
  • Las Vegas’s Best of Las oddly touts an “Ethnic Food” category despite having other separate Asian/Polynesian food categories like Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese, and Thai.
So, what of the others?  Generally speaking, the remaining publications not mentioned above that I found online all shared specific Asian-based cuisine "Best Of" categories. "Best of" Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese categories were commonplace, as were dish-oriented categories like Pho, Poke and Sushi.  But none of them shared Columbus's distinction of nominating P.F. Chang's as Best Asian, or even Best Chinese Restaurant...or did they?

Well, prepare to be surprised.

Eateries specializing in biscuits, like this Hot Little Biscuit outlet in
the City Market, are fairly easy to find in Charleston, SC
In a something of an "honorable mention" designation, Charleston, SC's City Paper sports a Best Asian Fusion category in their poll (the wide-ranging creative dishes of Xiao Bao Biscuit); however, their poll contains all the other common Asian-related categories (excluding Pho), so overall, the category makes sense.

Interestingly, Washington DC's City Paper actually designates a Best Asian Category, despite having separate categories for seven other distinct Asian-based cuisines or dishes. For what it's worth, a Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao, edged out a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant for the top honors in this category.

In the runner-up spot of biggest surprises for me, the Reader Poll for the Los Angeles Daily News (which covers Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley) actually duplicates the 614 ColumBest vote result of P.F. Chang’s as Best Asian. Unlike the ColumBest vote, however, the Daily News poll also has eight other categories Asian cuisine categories, and interestingly enough, P.F. Chang’s did NOT earn the Best Chinese vote.

What most people don't realize is that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
first European to circumnavigate the California coast
was really in San Diego to get lettuce wraps
And in perhaps the biggest surprise (for me personally, anyway), the voters who chimed in on the San Diego Union-Tribune Best of 2018 poll dubbed P.F. Chang’s the Best Chinese Restaurant in the region. On the positive side, they did have seven other Asian-based categories, including the lone "Best Filipino" category in the 30 cities I surveyed.

So yes, Columbus is not alone, as it turns out, though I'm not sure that matching a couple of well-established culinary destinations in this particular distinction is the greatest feat.  Perhaps the ColumBest poll can evolve in the future into something more similar to the Columbus Alive readers poll, where voters got to choose between Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Ramen, Sushi, Indian, and Himalayan/Nepalese for "Best Of".

Oh yeah, Columbus Alive also had Best Chinese Restaurant category...with no P.F. Chang's to be found in the end result.

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