Last night, the second installment of Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh's Roundeye Noodle Bar pop-up went down at Puchowitz's Matyson (37 S. 19th St.). The partners, who first rolled out the conceptual "hip noodle spot run by two guys from the suburbs" on Jan. 29, are getting close to signing an investor, with an eventual plan to land a permanent space in Center City. But don't be surprised if the Roundeye name is scrapped before that time.
The reason? Local Asian advocates are publicly speaking out about the moniker's racial — and by some accounts racist — implications.
Yesterday morning, several hours before the pop-up kicked off, Helen Gym of Asian Americans United released a statement to press lambasting the Roundeye name. "If these self-named 'white boys' are the 'roundeye' noodle maker," Gym wrote, "what does that make the Asian noodle places they're modeling their place after? As a city notoriously home to Chink's Steaks, it's really a shame that a well-regarded spot like Matyson would lower their reputation to a legacy of petty, derogatory names in an effort to be 'hip.'"
"We didn't think it would get to the point where it would be offending people," says Darragh, who characterized he and Puchowitz's initial decision to run with the name as a joke on themselves and not on the Asian community. "I don't want to alienate anybody. We are definitely going to be brainstorming some new names. That's where we stand right now." Darragh adds he and his partner are drafting an apology directed toward Gym and others who have expressed offense.
As an Asian-American, I was surprised the first time I came across the name. As someone who grew up absorbing plenty of malicious comments about my background, I thought dubbing a white-owned concept "Roundeye" was too much of a risk. It took me a little while — plus visits to both pop-ups — to form my current opinion on the matter. What is lost in this conversation is the fact that "roundeye" is not a term Puchowitz and Darragh invented in a ethnically lunkheaded fever dream. It's a term used by Asians to describe white people. A version of this word can be found in the annals of pretty much every minority's slang lexicon — cracker, paleface, gringo. Would a white-owned Mexican restaurant called "Gringo's Tacos" elicit this type of reaction? I don't think so.
"I personally don't consider [Roundeye Noodle] racist because it's a slang term used by Asians to describe white people," says Clara Park, a Philly-based Korean-American culinary professional whose Twitter handle, @phillyslantfood, is racially charged. "For me it doesn't imply anything better or worse in regards to the shape of my own almond eyes. ... Now, if the owners of Roundeye Noodle came out and said something like, 'Roundeye Noodle is better than slant eye noodles,' then I would be seriously offended."
Roundeye, in my own not-that-round eyes, is causing an uproar for two reasons. First, though it's a word to describe Caucasians, it refers so sharply to a sensitive topic for Asians that some cannot help but feel slighted. Secondly, and more vitally in my opinion, the term "roundeye" is absolutely archaic — I've witnessed very few Asian-Americans of my generation (born in the '80s) dropping it into conversation, jokingly or not. Meaning, many who are simply unfamiliar with the term's origins in the Asian community view it as a back-handed attack and not how I personally see it, as an Asian version of "gringo."
Both Puchowitz and Darragh have made it clear that there is no racist intent behind their name, but, as Gym points out in her statement, "that's exactly the problem with racial stereotypes — they're so deeply ingrained people don't even question it." If the large number of Asians I've seen in the crowd during both Roundeye pop-ups is any indication, the partners have captured the interest of part of a community that's either accepting of or nonplussed by the controversial name.
Photos: Neal Santos
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