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Restaurants serving Chinese or Taiwanese food in the U.S. often use the same few words in their names. Think golden and dragon. But NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been noticing a different trend in New York City.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Down underground in a Manhattan subway station, a wok full of napa cabbage and carrots are stir-frying in Edward Huang's first restaurant. Slow-braised beef noodle soup and rice bowls topped with minced five-spice pork are all served from this galley kitchen crammed inside a bustling food court. Huang says the dishes were inspired by visits to his family in Taiwan, and so was the restaurant's name - Zai Lai.
EDWARD HUANG: My family's parting words are always zai lai - come back soon, literally. But it's, like, a see you soon, come back soon sort of idea.
H. WANG: At first, though, spelling out that Mandarin phrase in English letters - Z-A-I L-A-I - was not what Huang had in mind for branding his Taiwanese restaurant.
HUANG: People come, and they say, oh, is it Zay Lay (ph)? We had - you know, some of our employees in the beginning had trouble pronouncing it. And I wanted to avoid that headache.
HONGYUAN DONG: Well, I guess the only difficult sound here is the Z.
H. WANG: Hongyuan Dong teaches Chinese at the George Washington University in D.C. Here's how he coaches his students on pronouncing that Z sound in Mandarin.
DONG: So it's similar to Ds in English. So it's not zai (ph) - it's dsai (ph).
H. WANG: Dong says he's seen other new restaurants with Mandarin names written in pinyin. It's a system of transliterating Chinese characters using the Roman alphabet. Pinyin was first adopted by the Chinese Communist Party, and now it's an international standard that's popping up even on restaurant signs in Washington, D.C.
DONG: Actually, I noticed a new restaurant called Lao Ban. There's no English because lao ban (ph) means the boss in Chinese.
H. WANG: That's another sign, Dong says, of how much more common Mandarin is in U.S. culture today.
HEATHER LEE: I think it means that we're ready to engage mainland China. We're speaking in the language of mainland China.
H. WANG: Heather Lee is a historian at New York University Shanghai. She's researched the history of Chinese restaurants in the U.S., including when names in Cantonese rather than Mandarin were often spelled out using English letters. Over the years, many other restaurants have adopted some common keywords in their English names like panda and Great Wall. Lee says the transition towards Mandarin names marks a shift in who's running the restaurants and the kinds of customers they're trying to attract.
LEE: They're linking up with a wealthier professional population from mainland China. A lot of them seem to have connections to Taiwan as well.
H. WANG: For Jason Wang, it was a connection to the city of Xi'an in northwest China that he wanted to preserve right in the name of his family's restaurant chain in New York - Xi'an Famous Foods. The first part of the name is spelled with an X-I. It's one of the hardest sounds to pronounce for many non-Mandarin speakers. And Wang says putting that X on his restaurant storefronts has helped the business grow.
JASON WANG: Let's just keep things authentic. You know, let's keep the X. Let's keep the spice in the food. Let's not make it too easy for people. People like discovering stuff, you know. They don't really like everything handed to them on a platter.
H. WANG: Wang adds it's also a matter of taking pride in his Chinese heritage.
J. WANG: Why are we ashamed of the stuff that we call our food or what we call our restaurants? I think that is also why we've become more confident in presenting the actual names versus trying to hide it behind some sort of euphemism of a name.
H. WANG: Back underground in the subway station at Zai Lai, Patrick Dixon (ph) is waiting for his order - a steamed pork bun.
PATRICK DIXON: You know, if I wanted, like, authentic Chinese cuisine, I'd consider the place that actually has, like, Chinese words in it before a place that has, like, just panda, you know?
H. WANG: Dixon's a frequent customer at this restaurant. He says part of the draw is its name - Zai Lai.
You know what it means?
DIXON: No. I have no clue. What does it mean?
H. WANG: It means come again in Mandarin.
DIXON: Oh, that makes sense.
H. WANG: Especially since he's planning to Zai Lai again and again.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.