Ordinarily, a new Chinese restaurant opening near downtown Dallas, led by a chef who previously worked in the kitchens at Wu Wei Din and Royal China, would be front-page food news.
Ordinarily, the prospect of ultra-experienced Weigou Cai cooking up mapo tofu, hand-pulled noodles and soup dumplings at a new spot would get gourmets across North Texas excited.
But these are far from ordinary times. Thanks to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, Cai’s dumplings and ants climbing trees (a wonderful Sichuan specialty of pork and glass noodles) will have to be served via takeout. The restaurant opens on Wednesday, in the middle of Dallas County’s shutdown.
And this is far from an ordinary restaurant. Its name is Sum Dang Good Chinese, and its branding focuses entirely on the kind of racially based humor Americans found funny 50 years ago.
The cocktail menu has a banner reading, “CONFUCIUS SAY ‘BOTTOMS UP.’” The dessert menu doesn’t just say dessert; it says, in all capital letters, “WHO DOESN’T LOVE A HAPPY ENDING?”
Reaction from the Dallas food community has been swift and harsh. Basically every food writer and editor in town took to Twitter to express their disgust. Sandwich Hag chef-owner Reyna Duong added, “Is this a fucking joke? Get. The. Fuck. Outta. Here.”
Asked if she wanted to comment further, Duong declined, saying she’s “trying not to spend the energy.”
The Sum Dang Good concept is the product of uncle-and-nephew white restaurateurs Phil Romano and David Romano. Phil Romano, who is now more than 80 years old and a longtime Dallas food service veteran, has been known for years for his sophomoric sense of humor.
In a 2004 profile in D Magazine, Nancy Nichols documented some of his lowest jokes, including a French restaurant called We/Oui, which provided branded condoms “for your wee wee,” a cartoon donkey named Harry Ass and two unrealized concepts — a chicken joint named Peckers and a meatball spot with the slogan “We’ve got the biggest balls in town.” And, of course, he made his fortune off the chain Fuddruckers.
Two years ago, the elder Romano also settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former Eatzi’s employee. Ichel Cook, who was an assistant manager at the Oak Lawn store, alleged that Romano inserted his hand into her “gluteal cleft” during a staff meeting. The incident was caught on camera. Afterward, Cook contended, Eatzi’s human resources staff harassed her into leaving the job.
When The Dallas Morning News asked Romano to comment on the terms of the settlement, he offered this enigmatic remark: “There was no extortion, so I’m happy with that.”
A man who distributed condoms at his business, pitched “biggest balls” jokes as restaurant slogans and once appeared to molest an employee on camera surely knows what he is doing making a “happy ending” joke on a Chinese restaurant menu.
(For those readers who might be blessedly innocent, Sum Dang Good Chinese’s “WHO DOESN’T LOVE A HAPPY ENDING?” slogan is a reference to the racist belief that Asian spa and massage workers offer sexual services at the end of a session.)
The joke hits especially hard in Dallas because just a few months ago, a Chinese restaurant in Southlake was shut down by the police after an investigation found it was a front for a sex-trafficking ring that forced captives to work at a so-called spa.
According to Morning News writer Robert Wilonsky, “In the case of Jade Spa, seven women were living in a single room, sleeping on thin mats placed atop tattered sheets of Owens Corning insulation ... Another bag was found in a back room filled with gallons of Listerine and lotion.”
Yes, Sum Dang Good Chinese — who doesn’t love that?
A public relations representative offered the following comment on the restaurant’s branding: “It’s tongue-and-cheek and by no means meant to be taken as disrespectful or insensitive.”
It remains to be seen whether Dallasites will agree with that thinking, or if they will be put off by Sum Dang Good’s century-old sense of humor and winking references to human trafficking.
As a non-East Asian food writer, I won’t offer judgment here on the potential racism of this concept. But as a restaurant critic, I am confused by the menu, which includes an astonishing 70 different items ranging from pad Thai to St. Louis-style baby back ribs, with chicken pot pie dumplings in between.
I’m also puzzled by the alleged humor. “Confucius Say” jokes were a fad in the 1930s: When was the last time anybody made one? Does anyone under the age of 60 think that “Sum Dang Good” food is chuckle-worthy?
And I’m worried about how this concept — whether it’s pure cheese or truly malignant — will represent Dallas on the national stage. We already had one pan-Asian restaurant owned by white people that made light of sexual euphemisms and belittled Asian cultures. And we know how that story ended.