Gourmet Kingdom uses traditional Szechuan cuisine to establish itself as a unique entity in a small southern community, becoming a go-to for people seeking something different. However, being different comes with a degree of social isolation, and Gourmet Kingdom is no exception.
Location: 301 E Main St, Carrboro, NC 27510
Hours: 11am-3pm, 4:30-9:30pm
Phone: (919) 932-7222
Expect to Spend: $11.00 – $30
Tar Heel Tips:
- The lunch menu offers deals on weekdays, but not weekends.
- The lunch menu also offers Americanized Chinese food options, like orange chicken.
- Lots of seating makes it great for large parties looking for a meal.
- Meals are meant to be served family style: get different dishes and share!
Gourmet Kingdom has managed to thrive for 20 years by establishing a niche for itself that differentiates it from most Carrboro establishments. By utilizing traditional cuisine and serving up 150 Szechuan dishes that haven’t been Americanized, it becomes a restaurant with a unique style all of its own. Its prices, though not especially cheap, are affordable compared to more connoisseur-driven Asian establishments like Lantern, helping to attract a unique crowd to its doors: one that craves traditional Chinese food. However, even as it sets itself apart, Gourmet Kingdom runs into a unique set of societal biases and expectations.
One of the expectations Gourmet Kingdom has to face is one of “authenticity,” which, rather than being a criterion that can be reached, depends entirely on the customer’s expectations. The problem with authenticity is that it’s a concept that relies on the view of ethnicity as a stagnant thing instead of something that is constantly evolving as cultures grow and shift. An article by Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine explains the phenomenon well: “[e]thnicity often becomes a marketing tool, part of an entrepreneurial market.” For this reason, restaurants like Gourmet Kingdom are required to play to the expectations of the American customer in their design and aesthetic sensibilities; stereotypical Chinese imagery becomes part of the costume they wear to attract business.
Spoilers: It’s Xenophobia
The second cultural pitfall Gourmet Kingdom has to overcome to survive is the public perception of Chinese restaurants. They, and most Chinese restaurants, are caught in a sort of Catch-22. To attract customers, they’re required to play up their foreignness and the fact that their cuisine is from a different culture. At the same time, they have to remain familiar enough to avoid attracting the customers’ ire. Gourmet Kingdom offers a hint of familiarity by serving Americanized Chinese cuisine on their lunch menu, but for the most part their business hinges on adventurous diners and people familiar with Szechuan culture already.
When they stray too far from the familiar, Chinese restaurants run the risk of attracting xenophobic rumors like that of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. In the late 60s, people began to report feeling veguely sick after eating in Chinese establishments, and blamed the MSG used in their food preparation. As Ian Mosby describes in his paper, “within a few years of its ‘discovery’, the condition was also being increasingly associated with nearly any unpleasant symptoms experienced after consuming Chinese food.” Despite MSG also being used in American dishes, the medical and scientific communities focused on the “Chinese” part of the illness, resulting in hundreds of flawed research projects that failed to confront the researchers’ own assumed biases.
Overcoming Isolation with Isolation
The first thing you discover researching Gourmet Kingdom is that they’re effectively invisible on social media. Their Facebook page is unused, they don’t have a Twitter, and their Instagram is Instagone. Figuring out where to park isn’t immediately obvious and even after overcoming these hurdles, the restaurant often just looks like it’s closed. Learning about the restaurant’s existence is like stumbling onto a deeply hidden treasure chest, one only whispered about on the fringes of society. Discovering it through word of mouth alone is an interesting and singular experience; in the 21st century it’s childishly simple to find any information you need, but Gourmet Kingdom’s history and even current ownership remain an enigma. It’s allowed Gourmet Kingdom to develop a sort of culture around itself, emphasizing the familial atmosphere even as customers revel in this hidden secret they’ve discovered.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Despite not having a large internet presence, Gourmet Kingdom has developed an almost cult-like following. Yelp (one of the few places to learn about Gourmet Kingdom on the web) reviewers sing its praises, calling it “delicious” and “damn tasty,” but the restaurant has made a greater impact than garnering good online reviews. It’s become a second home of sorts for Chinese students yearning for a taste of home. Large portion sizes and an emphasis on sharing food make it easy to establish a friendly rapport with your dining companions, even if they were virtual strangers before, making it a surprisingly good place for dates and club meetings.
It’s (Probably) Not Going Anywhere Soon
Gourmet Kingdom seems like an impossible restaurant at first: with all the strikes against it, discovering it’s around 20 years old is shocking. However, by embracing its cuisine fully, building a dedicated customer base, and harnessing tradition for their own benefit, Gourmet Kingdom continues trucking, standing against the waves of xenophobia and stereotypes with aplomb.
References Shun Lu, and Gary Alan Fine. “The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3, 1995, pp. 535–553. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4120779.  Ian Mosby; ‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980, Social History of Medicine, Volume 22, Issue 1, 1 April 2009, Pages 133–151, https://doi-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1093/shm/hkn098