The East Bay's most exclusive underground Chinese restaurant can be found inside an unassuming bungalow on a residential street nestled high in the El Cerrito hills. Chiu's Moderately Ok Chinese is a dining establishment that's so far under the radar it doesn't have its phone number or hours of business listed anywhere on the internet — but, according to Yelp user "Sung L.," it's so popular customers routinely have to wait in line, and it serves wonton soup and salt and pepper spareribs that are, in the words of Yelp user "Shirell B.," where "heaven can be found on earth."
Oh, and there's also this: Chiu's doesn't exist.
But I didn't figure that out until after I had driven 45 minutes along winding backroads, fueled by a small number of enthusiastic online reviews and the prospect of a big scoop, to arrive at a cute little house that most certainly didn't look like a restaurant. Still, I didn't give up hope — not even after the middle-aged white lady who answered the door (and who, I'll admit, didn't exactly fit the picture of the "Chiu" I'd conjured up in my mind) politely explained that she'd been living in the house for nineteen years, and, as far as she was aware, there had never been a restaurant there. Helpfully, she suggested that I check out Uncle Wong's around the corner.
I held onto that shred of hope even after circling the area several times to determine whether a slightly inaccurate street address might have been the culprit. And even days later, after I verified that the Contra Costa County health department had never inspected or issued a permit for any legitimate restaurant with the name "Chiu's Moderately Ok Chinese" (or anything remotely similar) in El Cerrito or any of the surrounding cities, I wondered if the place might be some kind of top-secret, unlicensed supper club. Did the woman who answered the door turn me away because I didn't know the password, or because she pegged me for a health inspector, or worse yet, a journalist?
In the end, after reaching out to the four Yelpers who wrote the reviews that first sent me on this misadventure, I figured out that the correct explanation was the simplest one: I'd been duped. And it's embarrassing how easy it was to fool me. The first step, if your goal is to prank a food critic, is to come up with a good name for your fake restaurant. Goofy and self-deprecating, "Chiu's Moderately Ok Chinese" is a great restaurant name; possible headlines for my intended review practically wrote themselves.
Step two: Make sure the photos look tasty. (Look at that steamed fish pictured above, and tell me, honestly, that you wouldn't drive an unreasonable distance to eat it.) Conveniently leave out the restaurant's hours and phone number, so there's no way for anyone — including Yelp — to confirm the existence of the place except by driving up into the hills. Finally, and this is the part that pains me to admit: Pepper your fake reviews with breathless exclamations about long lines and the gritty, off-the-beaten-path nature of a dining experience that you won't find in any normal restaurant. You might say, as Yelp user "Leah E." did, "This spot is for the person who wants an Anthony Bourdain-esque dining experience ... i.e. no reservations."
What does it say about me — or about our food-obsessed culture, which places such a premium on discovering the latest and greatest obscure restaurant — that I fell for such obvious food-writer catnip? What significance is there to the fact that I read four reviews offering little to no actual information about the dishes served at Chiu's — except that they were, in "Amanda W.'s" words, "THE BOMB" — and considered that par for the course? What does it say about Yelp — a company dogged by accusations of unethical business practices — that, as of this printing, a completely fictitious restaurant entry that lists some innocent bystander's home address hasn't been taken down more than a month after it was created? (It was more than a little bit ironic to see, above a series of fake reviews, Yelp's disclaimer: "Your trust is our top concern, so businesses can't pay to alter or remove their reviews.")
Once I realized the whole thing was a joke, I wondered what the punchline was. If it was a prank, who was it a prank on? The typical foodie who'd be dumb enough (like me) to drive into the middle of a remote residential neighborhood just for the bragging rights of being one of the first to have some uniquely authentic food experience? It might be awfully self-absorbed of me to imagine so, but it occurred to me that the entire stunt might be an elaborate trap to ensnare me personally. Anyone who has read my columns for any length of time probably knows that if a sandwich shop opens in the back of a convenience store or a barbecue pitmaster sets up outside of a gas station, it's practically a guarantee that I'll find some way to write about it. An internet troll wouldn't have to think too far out of the box to realize that a secret homestyle Chinese restaurant is right in my wheelhouse.
The truth turned out to be somewhat more mundane. A group of friends decided to write "reviews" of a dinner party hosted by their friend Chiu, reportedly an excellent Chinese cook. Chiu's friends had long told him that he should open his own restaurant. "Maybe your misadventure will finally motivate him to try," "James T." wrote.
I hope it does. At the risk of playing to type, I have to admit: If Chiu ever really does open his "moderately ok," top-secret underground Chinese restaurant, I'll be one of the first in line.