… got his start in the early Aughts.
Writer. Nostalgist. Active seeker of a ten-day NBA contract.
Ten years ago Sony Pictures Classic distributed the small scale drama My Life Without Me. The film received above average reviews and subsequently fell off the public’s radar. This was/is unfortunate because few films more movingly address issues of mortality, life regrets, and basic humanity. Sarah Polley gives an extremely affecting performance as a 23-year old nightshift janitor with a husband and two daughters, who one day gets railroaded with a diagnosis of terminal cancer and two months to live. Writer/director Isabel Coixet doesn’t treat the grave material with kid gloves or bursts of melodrama. She allows the story to develop organically, and her patient directorial style pays dividends as the film comes to a heartbreaking conclusion.
My Life Without Me won’t leave you feeling great about the world, but the beautiful storytelling in this powerful film also won’t leave your conscience. Look for an excellent performance from a young Mark Ruffalo.
Legacies are tough to define for some athletes but not for others. Recently retired NBA guard Tracy McGrady falls in the latter category.
For basketball enthusiasts like myself, who attended college in the early 2000s and spent many a night toggling between box scores on NBA.com and frustratingly slow Napster downloads, McGrady possesses a very specific basketball legacy: He was the first (and to my knowledge still the only) NBA player to master the self-alley-oop off the backboard and use this playground maneuver to humble opponents on a somewhat regular basis.
Say the words ‘McGrady’ and ‘backboard’ to basketball fans who followed the game closely in the early Aughts, and there’s a good chance they’ll smile and start reminiscing about the 2002 All-Star game, when McGrady put Dirk Nowitzki on a highlight reel with a mind-blowing backboard pass and subsequent dunk. Bill Walton, who was calling the game for NBC, said “I’ve never seen this before,” and though Walton’s commentating style was defined by an inclination for hyperbole, no other words could have better captured the moment. On a day when fellow All-Star Kobe Bryant jacked-up shots in an effort to win the MVP Award and became the subject in a very awkward in-game interview, McGrady made the most memorable impression with one dazzling display of individual ability.
What’s remarkable about that play is how strongly it continues to resonate with so many basketball fans. With their strong slant towards showmanship, NBA All-Star games are little more than exhibitions of spectacular individual plays. On an intellectual level, it makes little sense to dwell on an All-Star game highlight, because the lack of defense significantly lowers the degree of difficulty of say dunking or throwing a no look pass. But McGrady’s play was so much more spectacular than the run-of-the-mill ‘wow’ moments peppered throughout most All-Star exhibitions that fans who saw it unfold in real time can’t help but still feel some degree of awe for McGrady’s talents and the audacity with which he put them to use.
That wasn’t the first time McGrady had made such a play and it wouldn’t be the last. McGrady’s ability to bring contest style dunks to actual competition stands as a lasting testament to his immense talent. The difficulty of throwing a self-alley-oop in a game can’t be overstated, yet McGrady, with his slightly lackadaisical on-court demeanor and almost languid motions, made it look easy. He packed the silky smooth handles and sweet jump-shot of a guard into a 6’8″ frame. His combination of size, athletic ability, basketball savvy and skills made him one of the most prolific one-on-one players of all-time. He prefigured the current era of basketball, which is dominated by big men who play like guards.
McGrady’s career begs a lot of ‘what ifs?’ What if he had stayed in Toronto and played with his ultra-talented distant cousin? What if he’s had better teammates in Orlando and Houston? What if injuries hadn’t brought his prime to a premature end? And since McGrady announced his retirement last week, sports columnists have addressed these questions.
For my part, I find such discussions a bit depressing and somewhat unnecessary. Under different circumstances McGrady may have won multiple MVP awards and hoisted several Larry O’Brien trophies. Success in team sports depends as much on good fortune as it does individual talent and hard work, and such fortune eluded McGrady for 16 seasons—there’s a cruel irony in the fact that Tim Duncan’s Spurs only loss in the NBA Finals occurred after McGrady joined the team as a benchwarmer. But speculating as to why McGrady could never lead the Orlando Magic or Houston Rockets out of the first-round of the playoffs obscures the more important conversation: In his prime, McGrady was one of the most exciting basketball players of all-time. He was a joy to watch and did things on the court that even talented successors like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have yet to master.
Professional basketball needs its superstars to find new and creative ways to put a round ball through a metal hoop. The repetition that is inherent to an 82 game NBA season will always make some games a little boring. Players like McGrady, who use their natural abilities to do things on a basketball court no one has ever seen before, keep the games compelling and help the sport evolve. McGrady was a singular talent, the likes of whom we may not see again for quite some time. And though he may not own any championship hardware, his legacy is secure among basketball zealots who were privileged to watch him play.
Kobe Bryant’s public life has revolved around a strange dichotomy. On one hand, Bryant always seemed destined to be an immensely popular athletic celebrity from the moment he burst onto the national scene.1 On the other, he always possessed a preternatural inability to make savvy PR moves. No other athlete from the aughts put his foot in his mouth more often than Bryant. His habit of saying things that irritate fans and make him look like someone who is a bit too desperate for attention is confounding. This is a player who could always read defenses but never understand the implications of public actions. It is why, in the twilight of his career, fans and the media don’t look upon him more fondly.
The best example of Bryant’s lack of awareness occurred on the eve of the 2001 NBA Finals, when Kobe made his feelings about the 76ers players known by telling the media he was “coming to Philly to cut their hearts out.” Taken within the context of those playoffs, Bryant’s statement was somewhat understandable. One of the prevalent media narratives that season was that the 76ers, led by Allen Iverson, were an overachieving team that had displayed immense heart during their run to the Finals. Bryant seemed genuinely tired of hearing about how much ‘heart’ the Sixers possessed,2 but his reaction was loud, unnecessary, and reeked of overly ambitious bravura.
What made the comments especially puzzling is that Bryant hails from Philadelphia (Lower Merion to be exact) and his father played for the 76ers, so the series represented something of homecoming for the young star. The smart advice would have been try and win the series, but don’t go out of your way to antagonize the inhabitants of your home city.
Philly fans, who have never been known for their magnanimity, didn’t take kindly to Bryant’s remarks. They booed him heavily during the games that took place in Philly. The boos fell on deaf ears, however, Bryant did cut out the Sixers hearts, helping to lead the Lakers to a convincing 4-1 victory.
In the aftermath of that series, the furor over Bryant’s ill-timed comments—couldn’t he have just kept his mouth shut?—died down. But things got very interesting the next season, when the NBA All-Star game came to Philadelphia. Bryant, who was in the midst of his prime as a basketball player, was starting for the Western Conference, and to no one’s surprise3 Philly fans had not forgotten the comments made by Bryant the previous June.
NBA All-Star games are a lot of fun, but a player doesn’t stand to gain much from playing particularly well. Win the All-Star MVP award and promptly see it have no tangible impact on your career. Heading into the 2002 All-Star game, there were a lot of juicy storylines for fans and members of the media to sink their teeth into. Michael Jordan was back, albeit in a Wizards uniform, and playing in his first All-Star game since 1998. Allen Iverson, the reigning MVP, had a chance to perform for his hometown fans. Jason Kidd, who after being traded to New Jersey was in the midst of transforming the Nets into one of the best and most exciting NBA teams, was suiting up for the Eastern Conference for the first time in his career. And yet, from the opening tip Kobe Bryant seemed determined to make that particular game all about himself.
You can’t overstate the questionable nature of Bryant’s mindset. Given his unpopularity within Philadelphia at that time, and given that the crowd wanted to use that All-Star game as an opportunity to celebrate Iverson, who was also paying tribute to ex-Sixers star Julius Irving by wearing his retired No. 6 jersey, Bryant would have been wise to simply fade into the background. But from the moment he took the court, he went on the offensive. He would take 25 shots, two shy of Rick Barry’s record. He didn’t make the game’s signature play—that honor went to Tracy McGrady’s self-pass off the backboard. He didn’t provide a nice moment of levity—that was the aging Jordan missing a dunk in the open court. He just made it clear from the get go that he was gunning for the MVP trophy.
With Bryant’s ambitions laid naked with every contested shot he took, the Philly crowd responded with a chorus of boos. In the second-half of the game, jeers rained every time Bryant touched the ball. The game became an inescapable exercise in awkwardness. NBC commentators Marv Albert, Bill Walton, and Steve Jones couldn’t help but remark on the nastiness of the crowd. At one point Walton wondered, in the wonderful aw-shucks/zealous overstatement manner that defined his broadcast career, if the other Western Conference players would stage a freeze out in response to Bryant’s ball-hoggery. The awkwardness culminated when Jim Gray interviewed Bryant on the sideline, in what has to be the most painful in-game interview ever committed to video.
Watching that interview unfold on real time, I half expected Bryant to start crying on national television. Marv Albert put it best, as Marv Albert is so often wont to do, when at the conclusion of the interview he quipped “Jim Gray thoroughly depressing Kobe Bryant.” For what it’s worth, Bryant deserves credit for being so honest and unguarded in the moment. Few athletes in that position would have admitted that their feelings were hurt by a crowd’s response, but Bryant didn’t shy away from the pain. He confronted it head-on, which was a win for on-camera honesty but didn’t make the entire experience any less uncomfortable.
Whether or not they could detect the young star’s hurt feelings, the crowd’s boos never relented. When David Stern awarded Bryant the MVP trophy he so clearly wanted, the palpable hostility in the arena marred the moment in real-time. But in retrospect, Bryant’s trophy acceptance is the perfect signifier of Bryant’s strange career. He’s one of the ten best basketball players ever but ill always seem like a tragic figure, a person who desperately wanted to be loved with the same ferocity as his predecessor, MJ, but always made strange, ill-advised decisions that kept this from happening.
I’m sure a lot of people who were watching that game enjoyed seeing Bryant squirm on the sideline as Jim Grey pushed Bryant to explain why everyone in that arena hated him. There’s a whole industry built upon reveling in the pain of celebrities. But the only emotion I felt at that moment was pity. Yes Kobe brought those boos on himself by 1) saying something stupid the previous summer and 2) actively trying to win the All-Star game MVP, but underneath his chiseled 6’7” frame there’s always seemed to be a lonely kid who just wanted to be liked but never knew how to make it happen.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking about Kobe Bryant a lot and feeling a bit sorry for him. The rise of LeBron James and all the wonderful things he’s accomplished the past few seasons have indirectly made people forget just how great Bryant was. Nowadays the media is quick to compare James to MJ while skipping over Bryant, and that is patently stupid for so many different reasons.
Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve always preferred Bryant to James. It’s a style thing. James is the monster truck who crushes lines of sedans; Bryant is the formula one car who blows by minivanswith sheer velocity and agility. I’ll take the Corvette over the Dodge Ram any day of the week.
In 2002, Bryant was the best basketball player in the world, but far from the most beloved.
1. That moment, for many of us, was when he took established pop star Brandy to his senior prom. Bryant wasn’t the first late 90s high schooler to leap straight to the NBA, but Kevin Garnett wasn’t dating celebrities before ever receiving his first NBA paycheck. Kobe’s was a baller move.
2. I find myself being overly sympathetic with Bryant because I too was sick and tired of the ‘Philly has heart’ story. That team’s playoff run was nothing short of magical, but at some point reporters should have found a new way to describe the team.
Every few weeks, Remember the Aughts’ official music consultant @misibel will discuss one of his favorite songs and music videos from the Aughts.
Few songs hold up musically or lyrically over a ten year span. Those that do are considered radio classics or pop hits that will forever be played at wedding receptions.
This song from Brand New’s second album displayed everything about the band’s maturation from their emo pop punk debut. Lead singer Jesse Lacey’s use of lyrical wit and imagery perfectly describe the fears and bravado of young men searching for love.
The song’s musical build up only elevates the tempo and overarching theme; a catchy beat to perform air drums and enough hard guitar riffs to keep your head banging.
“Basketball is allegedly the most expressive sport.”—Carles, staff writer for Grantland
When it comes to NBA basketball, there are a few things I believe unconditionally. First, with all due respect to Jordan’s Bulls, Johnson’s Lakers, and LeBron’s Heat, the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers are the greatest team of my lifetime.1 Second, the 1999 NBA draft produced a surprising number of pseudo stars.2 Third, Allen Iverson is by far the most consequential player of the post-Jordan era. It’s not even close. And this is further indication that unlike what our sports culture’s zeitgeist constantly declares, winning is far from everything, especially when it comes to an athlete’s legacy.
In some ways, Iverson was just the logical extension of Michael Jordan. During the mid-80s, Jordan redefined the paradigm for modern NBA superstardom by infusing the superstar basketball player-persona with new elements custom tailored for the cable TV age: a focus on style (long shorts, sweet kicks, shaved head), in-your-face swagger (tongue always out), the consistent ability and desire to humiliate opponents via highlight worthy moves. Not surprisingly, Jordan didn’t initially sit well with the establishment. People forget this now, but before Jordan cemented his reputation as ‘the greatest competitor of all-time’ he was viewed as something of a ball-hog, a ‘me-first’ player who refused to subordinate personal accomplishments to the well-being of the team. A prevalent narrative during his early years questioned whether a scoring champ could serve as the cornerstone of a championship team. Unlike Jordan, Bird and Johnson never led the league in points per game; they entered the NBA branded as players who made everyone around them better. Their highlight reels are filled with just as many spectacular passes as shots. Jordan differed from the two standard bearers of the rejuvenated Association, because people believed he prioritized getting his over getting his teammates involved.
This changed when the Bulls started rolling in the early nineties. Suddenly, a genius scorer like Jordan, let’s call this type of player the lone-gunner, could lead a team to not one, not two, but six championships.3 In spite of Jordan’s success, the basketball establishment remained wary of lone gunners and the perceived detriment they posed to the fundamentals of the game. In a basketball culture where AAU and its supposed me-first values was starting to become, or just starting to be recognized as, a significant force in player development, coaches, ex-players turned analysts, and run-of-the-mill sports journalists feared that once Jordan retired, a generation of players who had grown up watching him compete would enter the league and turn a team oriented game into a series of glorified one-on-five contests.
Enter Iverson. To critics, Iverson was a miasma of the problems they claimed were about to plague basketball. He was the lone-gunner on steroids, a player who never passed up an opportunity to shoot, even though his field goal percentage never exceeded 45 percent.4 But to a generation that embraced street ball culture, personified by the growing popularity of AND1 Mixtapes and reported on in the pages of Slam magazine, Iverson was a god. His brand of basketball and the style he brought to the court was an athletic extension of hip-hop culture, a brash combination of swagger, natural ability, and fuck-you attitude.
When most people talk about Iverson, they’re quick to mention the fashion styles he popularized: the cornrows and the tattoos. What they often fail to mention is that the style in which he played the game (i.e. the way he actually moved his body), was just as important in building his star.
Basketball is the most expressive game, because 1) the players are not covered in padding (football and hockey) or big uniforms (baseball) so their physical movements are more readily on display, and 2) the subtle variations of even basic basketball movements are easily observed. Only uber-football nerds sit around and compare the footwork and throwing motions of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but any casual sports fan can easily discriminate between how Iverson and Jason Kidd dribble, pass, shoot, and generally get from point A to point B on a basketball court. They look like completely different players. Allen Iverson’s crossover is a distinct basketball move—if it could be distilled into a physical object that object would merit a spot in the basketball hall of fame—and it was Iverson’s crossover (and other aspects of his game) that won him such a strong fan base.
Iverson was the first shooting guard who primarily attacked defenders off the dribble5. The great two-guards who preceded Iverson—Jordan, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Clyde Drexler—primarily operated out a triple-threat position or came off screens for jump shots. Iverson ignored this paradigm, opting to use a high, sometimes loose dribble to get defenders off balance before blowing by them with his quickness and either slashing to the hole or pulling up for a jump shot.
This style appealed to the Slam crowd. The purpose of street ball (again personified by AND1) wasn’t just to score but to embarrass your defender in the process by crossing ‘em up and breaking ‘em down—as a result AND1 games were just a succession of creative dribblers breaking down defenders. Iverson took this style and made it viable in actual game competition. The most famous clip of his career is a young Iverson showing up the elder statesman Jordan with a killer crossover. That one move became the symbol of the new generation of dribble-drive guards taking over for Jordan and his peers.
In the immediate aftermath of the Jordan years, there was no shortage of young guns vying for the unofficial title of ‘face of the league,’ and a number of these players (Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady) seemed poise to ascend to the throne at one time or another. But no matter how brightly these players’ stars shone, it always came back to Iverson. No one better embodied the sometimes contrasting sensibilities of NBA basketball and street ball, and no other player was as consistently innovative in how he played the game and how he presented himself to the public.
During the 2000-01 NBA season, two things occurred: Iverson reached his peak as a player, pushing a semi-talented 76ers squad to significantly overachieve and winning the MVP, and he began wearing a long sleeve on his right arm. Iverson said he began wearing the sleeve to aid the recovery from bursitis in his elbow, but fans saw it as the next great fashion statement popularized by the NBA’s coolest player. Countless players, including stars like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James have since worn the sleeve, but like so many other fashion statement and on-court mannerisms considered common in today’s NBA, the origin can be traced to Iverson.
By the time the 2001 NBA playoffs arrived, the Sixers were injured and running on fumes. Their first three playoff series went the distance—five games over the Pacers, seven games over the Raptors, and seven games over the Bucks. By contrast, their finals’ opponents, the Lakers, didn’t lose a game during the first three rounds. The series presented the ultimate contrast—an all-talented LA dynasty in the making versus the hard scrabble overachievers from Philly—and to EVERYONE’s surprise, the 76ers won game one in Los Angeles behind 48 points by Iverson. At the time, I had just finished my freshman year in college and was working odd jobs over the summer. The morning after that game, I went into work, trying to mentally prepare myself for eight hours of manual labor, when my boss of the week said, “Did you see the game last night? Allen Iverson is like Michael Jordan!”
I almost snapped. I loved Iverson and everything he brought to the game, but comparing any player to the recently retired Jordan approached blasphemy. I considered quitting on the spot. But in recent years, I’ve gone back and watched highlights from that game, and I can honestly say that my then-boss was correct. Iverson’s performance, punctuated by the great Tyronn Lue stepover, was Jordanesque. The style was different but the effect was the same: Dominance to the very end.
Unfortunately for Philly fans, the Lakers rediscovered their supreme talent after game one and won the next four games of that series in increasingly dominant fashion. Iverson would never again reach the NBA finals; like many great players before him (Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Baylor, Thompson) he would never host the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
But even though Iverson never achieved a one shining moment of championship glory, the image that resonates the most from the ‘01 finals occurred at the literal end of the series, after play had concluded. As the final horn sounded at Philadelphia’s First Union Center, Iverson took off for the tunnel. He didn’t want to be on his team’s home court while the Lakers celebrated at their expense, didn’t want to shake hands, just wanted out of the limelight. But Derek Fisher, the Lakers starting point guard and one of the players who had spent the series chasing Iverson around, wouldn’t let that happen. Before celebrating the victory with his own teammates, Fisher ran off the court, chased Iverson down the tunnel leading to the home team’s locker room, stopped his defeated nemesis and gave him a hug. Fisher just couldn’t let Iverson go without congratulating him on a hard fought series.
I’ve never seen another athlete in any sport go so far out of their way to extend congratulations to a vanquished opponent, but I’m not the least bit surprised that the player on the receiving end of such a touching gesture was Iverson.6 He commanded respect and engendered love from his peers, because he was, to put it quite simply, the coolest NBA player of the aughts, and in our celebrity obsessed culture coolness is the ultimate cultural currency even amongst the already famous. Crotchety analysts may have dismissed Iverson as too one-dimensional, but fans who grew up watching his generation go from collegiate pups to NBA superstars always knew that the epitome of basketball culture started and ended with the man they called A.I.
Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Todd Boyd (aka the Notorious PhD), a renowned scholar of race and popular culture. He told me (and I’ll paraphrase) that style is an integral component of African American culture, perhaps a distinguishing component, because exuding a particular style has long been a way for people marginalized by discrimination to fight that marginalization.
The rest of the 2000s was a series of diminishing returns for Iverson, but the inability to take home a title will never stain his resume. He will never be considered the Charles Barkley or Karl Malone of his generation, because with Iverson, the conversation will always start and end with his style and the way it changed the culture of basketball to reflect the rise of the hip-hop aesthetic.
And whenever you see a basketball player wearing a sleeve on their arm, remember the 2000-01 NBA season7 when Iverson was nearly untouchable.
1. Two of the 20 best players of all time at (Shaq) or near (Kobe) their all-time peaks plus a cast of role players who made just enough threes to keep opposing defenders honest and played (at times) stifling team defense. I don’t see any other post-1981 team coming close.
2. Here’s the draft http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_NBA_Draft. Brand, Ginobili, Odom, Hamilton, Miller, Marion, Terry, Artest/World Peace, Kirilenko.
5. When Iverson played his second and final season at Georgetown University, he shared ball-handling duties with fellow-guard Victor Page. This meant he didn’t have to function as a ‘true point guard,’ and it’s no coincidence that he had his best college season that year, leading Georgetown to a heartbreaking elite eight loss to a Marcus Camby led UMass team. But when he came into the NBA, Iverson’s height, or lack thereof, essentially mandated that he play point guard. This put him at something of a disadvantage. Iverson was a born scorer, a two-guard in a point-guard’s body, and it wasn’t until later in his career that coaches allowed him to occupy the position he fit into best.
7. This season may actually need its own blog post. From the Lakers up and down season, culminating in the most dominant playoff run in NBA history, to Iverson to Tracy McGrady’s debut in Orlando, it was one of the most fascinating nine months of professional basketball on record.
“You have got to try the Chicken Lettuce Wraps at P.F. Chang’s!”—overzealous individual.
“But I don’t even like Chinese food.”—me.
“That doesn’t matter. You have to try them. We’re going this weekend.” —overzealous individual.
I must have gone through this exact dialogue1 at least a dozen times circa 2002. And what’s really unfortunate is that I ended up eating more than my fair share of subpar lettuce wraps in the aftermath of at least half of those conversations.
According to its Wikipedia page, P.F. Chang’s has been in existence since 1993. That is lovely and probably true, but the restaurant, which can best be described as an “Asian-themed US casual dining restaurant chain2],” didn’t enter my own consciousness until nine years later when it suddenly became the vogue dining establishment for suburban inhabitants.
In our foodie centric culture with its unyielding emphasis on locally grown, responsibly raised products, it can be a bit difficult to remember a time when a chain restaurant that in no way markets itself as a haven of new wave, sustainable agriculture was considered cool, but trust me, it was. Everyone wanted to eat at P.F. Chang’s in the early 2000s and many of those people made a habit of raving about the experience. To understand how this restaurant came to occupy such a sacred spot within the hearts of suburban diners, it’s necessary to take a step back and revisit the food trends that preceded its rise.
Throughout the 1990s, industrial food was the norm. Factory to table ruled. Meat came from cans (Hormel’s Corned Beef, Libby’s Vienna Sausages, tins of sardines your father would pull out and have at during the Tonight Show); vegetables were frozen and bagged. TV Dinners constituted a real treat—an entire meal in one tray! Dippin’ Dots was the ice cream of the future. Food wasn’t something you discussed or blogged about or posted pictures of to Instagram. It was just necessary subsistence, prepared in smallish kitchens with linoleum counters and electric appliances.
In keeping with 90s food culture’s preference for brand names and convenience over uniqueness, it made sense that when people left their dining rooms to seek nourishment at professional establishments, chain restaurants, not farm-to-table hole in the walls3, were everyone’s first choice. This was the age of Applebee’s, Red Robin, Macaroni Grill, Don Pablo’s, and the always meme-able Olive Garden. When an Outback Steakhouse opened a few miles down the road from my parents’ suburban home, it became the epitome of fine dining, the place you only patronized for birthdays or other special occasions because two-hour waits on weekends were commonplace.
These restaurants were great—still are, actually—but they all did the same thing: Showcased wonderfully kitschy wall decorations and served slightly modified versions of typical American fare4. After a half-decade of eating at such establishments, consumers began to long for something a bit different.
Enter P.F. Chang’s. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that P.F. Chang’s was just the Asian Applebee’s, but in 2002 it seemed like so much more. Some of this stemmed from the restaurant’s design: Within the setting of architecturally unimpressive strip malls, the white horses flanking each Chang’s entrance seemed like some sort of grand invitation into a forbidden, exotic world. The restaurant immediately displaced Outback as the most interesting projection of someone else’s constructed vision of foreign culture.
Chang’s also grabbed a sizeable chunk of public’s imagination because at the time Asian food had not yet received the American chain restaurant treatment, which is to say it hadn’t been commoditized and made accessible to an audience seeking a (slightly) higher quality version of something they’d eaten from greasy takeout joints for years. Applebee’s did this for diner food; Don Pablo’s did it for Tex-Mex fare; Red Robin’s added a perceived level of gourmet to the American burger scene; Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill were upscale alternatives to the mom and pop pizza and pasta places that hosted youth soccer team celebrations, gorging kids on Americanized pizza and breadsticks.
What made Chang’s the perfect suburban restaurant in 2002 was that at that time the desire to for ‘authentic’ experiences of ‘foreign’ culture correlated with rising levels of affluence. P.F. Chang’s allowed suburban diners the chance to get a taste of something ‘exotic’ and ‘different’ without having to stray too far from a world of HOAs, manicured lawns, and expansive four lane roads separated by slightly elevated grass medians. For a brief moment, lettuce wraps from Chang’s represented the zeitgeist of upscale food for a certain class of people.
Unfortunately for the proprietors of this Asian-themed casual dining establishment, P.F. Chang’s only became fashionable at the tail end of the age of the suburban chain restaurant. As incomes continued to rise and people began looking for new and inventive ways5 to keep the size of their wallets manageable, individual restaurants with celebrity chefs and fresh takes on food preparation displaced the great chains of yore. One day a Royal Red Robin burger was all a kid could hope for on their twelfth birthday; a few years later that same kid was demanding tuna sashimi from a particular sushi restaurant. The same individuals who once fell head over heels describing the aforementioned lettuce wraps now spend Saturday mornings traipsing farmer’s markets while waxing poetic about the merits of kale. Failure to do anything else means you’re just not that cool.
P.F. Chang’s legacy was that it served as a bridge between the simplified food culture of the 1990s, a time when the term food snobbery was only applicable to the French, and our current one, in which too many people unironically cook with crème fraîche.
Those lettuce wraps won’t be coming back anytime soon, but in the early 2000s, food didn’t get any better.