5685 McKinley Pkwy, Hamburg, NY 14075
Web: Ginger & Garlic
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User-submitted Urbanspoon reviews are bogus. Not all of them, of course, but there are so many red flags these days that even Urbanspoon itself is suspicious: (a) first-time reviewers (b) show up in groups (c) to drool over places that (d) turn out to be decidedly mediocre. This week, more than 20 over-the-top raving posts (sample titles: "The Best Barbecue Ever!!!" and "Yee Haw!") in a surprisingly short period of time led us to Hamburg's Big Belly BBQ - unusually closed four days a week, including the day we tried to visit - so we instead wound up at another supposedly incredible Hamburg restaurant, a Chinese place called Ginger and Garlic. According to some Urbanspoon reviews, it's "the best in WNY!" But to make a long story short, it's not, and not even close. Phony or otherwise ridiculous 'reviews' are amongst the reasons we screen our comments, and why Urbanspoon recently added a "shill" button to its reviews to let readers mark obvious fakes. Even with human screeners, however, it's sometimes hard to know whether the "reviewers" are totally fake, just have limited experience, or are expressing subjectively bad taste.
To be honest, the experience we had at Ginger and Garlic was not worth the time we'd normally take to write a full or even half review; it is a small, not particularly Chinese-feeling place with seating capacity for roughly 20 people, only slightly nicer inside than a typical local take-out. We're not posting many photos of the dishes, which were visually indistinguishable from ones you'd find at most other sit-down Chinese restaurants. Instead, we're going to just highlight the two reviews on Urbanspoon, which we won't call "shills," and instead will just describe as… well, underinformed.
The "Joe" Review. Urbanspoon's first review of Ginger and Garlic is short but sugary sweet. "Not your typical Chinese restaurant… much better!!!" raves someone identified as Joe. "One stop at G&G and you'll never go anywhere else! Hands down, the best in WNY!" And that's it - three sentences and five exclamation points worth of unbridled excitement. These days, Urbanspoon is filled with similarly brief postings, many of them coming from mobile phones. With no details that can be verified in any way, apart from their glowing overall conclusions, they're useless.
Again, we're not going to call "Joe" a shill, but we can tell you that the vast majority of astroturfing (phony grass roots) posts we've seen over the years have a similarly absolutist tone: something isn't good, it's "the best," or if it has problems, it's "the worst." Sure, some people - perhaps many people - think in such black and white terms. But the point at which this post leaps right over our wall of plausibility is the suggestion that "you'll never go anywhere else," suggesting that the food is so fantastic here that you'll ignore the restaurant's competitors, no matter how good they might be. Would any typical customer ever really believe or post such a thing? Is it just a joke? If so, why show up on Urbanspoon to post a grand total of one review with such a statement?
If Ginger and Garlic was truly this great, we wouldn't have known it from the appetizers, which come from a very short list of choices: three types of egg rolls, a handful of other fried items, and six soups. The bowl of Hot and Sour Soup ($2.45) we ordered was quite literally the thickest we've ever had, and amongst the worst we've sampled locally - a brown bowl of gravy made with way too much cornstarch or a similar thickening agent, and not very good. By comparison, the deep-fried Vegetable Spring Rolls ($1.95/2) were fairly typical of pre-packaged versions - thin, crispy shells with ever so slightly peppery shredded vegetables inside, and entirely unremarkable. We've had better versions of each item at forgettable take-outs, and the Hot and Sour Soup is often superior at buffets, even ones where it's obviously been sitting around for a while.
The "JSM" Review. That brings us to the other Urbanspoon review, which reads a lot like the first one. "This is hands down the best Chinese restaurant in town…" starts the user identified as JSM, using the same "hands down" language found in "Joe's" review. "It is not greasy and they use high quality ingredients (for example the chicken is real chicken not the disgusting pressed and formed chicken pieces that the others use)." Once again, this person may not be a shill, but in our experiences, pointing negatively to "others" and calling their practices "disgusting" is a common astroturfing tactic: fake reviews frequently slam unspecified, straw man competitors to create the impression of strength in another product.
Admittedly, something could have changed in the kitchen since JSM's late August, 2009 posting, but what we can tell you about Ginger and Garlic is that the grease factor and "high quality ingredients" were no better here than at most of the Chinese restaurants we've visited recently in Western New York, take-out or otherwise. We sampled three entrees, each with a different potential level of grease, and all three were similarly very oily: Mongolian Beef ($10), served elsewhere as a low-grease dish with copious scallions, was completely different here - a mess of greasy brown sauce with cube-sliced onions and peppers, approximating a salt lick in flavor. Neither the portion size nor the quality of meat was in any way distinctive. Lemon Chicken ($8.75), typically deep fried and drenched with a thickened citrus sauce, was so-so here - the thin-sliced breast meat was heavy on batter and basically flavorless in portions that lacked for the sauce, but unimpressively edible in places that included it, and had no shortage of oil. Finally, Mou-Sei Pork ($8.15, aka Moo Shu Pork), which is always stir-fried in a wok, was glistening with grease at literally every angle, but the flavor of the shredded vegetables and matchstick-thin pieces of pork was totally fine, save for a salt level that became increasingly powerful with every bite. The included circular crepe-like pancakes were straight from a package and completely stuck together.
"The menu is limited," continues JSM, "but everything we have ever had is delicious… especially the handmade dumplings!" And in fact, yes, the menu is limited, though not in a special, 'only the best' Ming Cafe or Ming Teh sort of way. What Ginger and Garlic offers is effectively half or two-thirds of a typical Chinese takeout menu - the largely Americanized fare you're left with if virtually all of the specials have been removed, and many of the regional or otherwise challenging entrees have disappeared. On this menu, for instance, General Tso's Chicken has somehow become Hunan Chicken, rather than two separate dishes. And what about those handmade dumplings? We did try to order them. "Are you sure you want them?" asked our server. "Yes," we responded. "Well, people sometimes get upset when the appetizer takes 25 minutes to come out." "Okay, then, no," we said. How could we ignore such an inverse hard sell technique?
JSM finishes with a couple of touches found in Joe's review. "It is a little more expensive than the others," JSM claims, without noting who the 'others' are, "but once you have tried it you will never go back to another [C]hinese restaurant." Familiar? Yes. Accurate? No. Ginger and Garlic isn't actually more expensive than typical Chinese restaurants, unless your point of reference is a buffet; the dishes are generally cheap, and taste it. Even the white rice - a gimme almost anywhere - was dry and not worth eating.
Yet it's the second part of the sentence that we really disagree with. There may be fewer truly good Chinese places in Western New York than there were 10 years ago, but it's downright sad to think that someone - anyone - could visit this place without hoping for better options. Are Joe's and JSM's posts just shilling? A reflection of limited experience? Or something else? We can't say for sure. But if you're looking for superior choices, a fairly comprehensive list of worthwhile Chinese restaurants in Western New York is right here. Joe and JSM, if you're reading this - and if you're actually two different people, unaffiliated with the restaurant - we'd love to hear your side of the story, if there is one.