Have you ever thought of assembling a group for a road trip & guided tour of various menu items? Most people like myself go to the Upscale Chinese American places, see some interesting dishes, but always default back to the same tired list of 3-4 regular choices.
Good idea Dave! I’m actually working with Barry on a side project to do something about this, but we’re in the way-early stages. In the meantime, let’s lay some groundwork. While my own background in things Chinese is rather Chinese-American (and therefore of suspect authenticity), perhaps this rough guide will prove useful.
Exhibit A: Menu of SICHUAN GOURMET, Side 1
Note the menu for my favorite Chinese restaurant, Sichuan Gourmet. This is in the “Asian Outpost” category of our working taxonomy, but they crafted the menu to present the typical Chinese-American menu first. You can roughly break it down like this:
- Batter Coated and Deep Fried — Chunks of meat that have been heavily battered, usually covered with some kind of sweet, pungent sauce. General Tso’s Chicken, Orange Chicken, Sesame Beef, Sweet and Sour Pork, etc. Sometimes spicy. I actually like these sometimes, but they are often overbreaded or in giant chunks. If you have to cut the meat with a knife, it’s not quite right. Chinese food should be cut in small enough pieces for handy manipulation with chopsticks…no cutting at the table should be necessary.
- Mooshi Pork / Beef / Chicken — A melange of diced and cut mushrooms, bamboo, meat, and bean sprouts for rolling up in a pancake coated with the sweet and slightly smoky tasting Hoisin Sauce. I love those pancakes. I’ve had similar dishes in Taiwan, with more crepe-like pancakes.
Steamed Dishes — Often Chicken with Peapods, often not spicy. Light fare. I never order this stuff personally. Chicken is one of those meats that have to be cooked just right, otherwise it ends up rubbery and gross.
Stir Fried — Kung Bao Chicken, Beef/Chicken with Brocolli/Mushrooms, Garlic Pork, Garlic Chicken. Chicken with Peanuts, Chicken with Cashews. These are staple dishes. When cooked fast and served right away…they’re great! Most of the time these dishes suck: waterlogged, and “all taste same” because they have the standard trinity of broccoli / celery / waterchestnut soaked in brown sauce. Terrible, just terrible.
“Old Style” Favorites — BBQ pork, egg rolls, crab rangoons, chop suey, chow mein…these aren’t chinese at all (except for the BBQ pork). I admit, I do like the BBQ pork and crab rangoons occassionally.
p>One thing that’s notable about the Sichuan Gourmet Side A offerings: There’s no dishes like “Happy Family” or “Three Kingdoms Delight”. An “Upscale Chinese-American Restaurant” often has things of this type…Chen Yang Li in Nashua, for example, tends to name their dishes like this. I’m not sure if these are translations of actual dish names, or perhaps they’re historical in nature. It’s part of the charm of the place, though their lack of chinese vegetables is particularly distressing, but it’s not their fault. As they once told me, “No one here will eat them except for you! Everybody just want fried rice all the time! Fried rice! Fried rice!”
Exhibit B: Menu of SICHUAN GOURMET, Side 2
Ok, here’s the exciting part…the B-Side of the Sichuan Gourmet menu! This is what the restaurant is known for in the Chinese community: Sze-chuan Food. There are four or five major regional styles of Chinese cooking. In this country, Sze-Chuan and Cantonese seem to be the more popular. I’m fond of the Sze-Chuan and Shanghai regional varieties. I am pretty ignorant of Cantonese food, so I will have to research that. Lemi’s Barbecue in Cranston, RI is Cantonese I believe…they’re great.
Back to the menu, note that all the dishes have Chinese character names! Secondly, these are dishes that you’ve probably not seen in too many “Upscale Chinese American” establishments. This is the real stuff. I had no idea what most of it was, other than everything I’ve ordered has been very good.
Revisiting standard Chinese-American restaurants:
- The food is oftentimes too similar and too bland. The standard tastes are “sweet and pungent and deep fried”, “soy sauce”, “bland”, and “has red pepper flakes in it”. You can tell that they’re not trying that hard when every dish seems to include brocolli. If they’re trying to cut corners, you’ll see a lot of celery chunks (the American kind, not the thinner and more delicate chinese type). I also disapprove of the indiscriminate use of water chestnuts used to bulk up a stir fry. Blah. Worst still are carrots and peas…this just isn’t right. And run away if you see pineapples…you’re in a “Polynesian” place!
- The food is cold when it gets to you. The kitchen will hold the entire order of dishes until they can go out as a group, as they do in most restaurants here. In a real chinese restaurant, they bring the dish out as soon as it’s off the wok. That means it’s hot and at its best, and ready for group sharing.
- The food is watery or overcooked. In a formula-style stirfry consisting of a few vegetables tossed into a work, you can cook quickly but the water content tends to mess with the proper browning of the components. This is a problem particularly when stir-frying at home, on an underpowered burner. Sometimes it tastes like the food was all tossed in together and allowed to warm up to edible temperatures before the standard mix of sauce was tossed in. Blah.
Sichuan Gourmet’s authentic side of the menu doesn’t have any of these problems, of course. Every dish I’ve ordered has been pretty distinctive, flavorful, and almost never overcooked. The dishes fly right out of the kitchen, sizzling on the platter. They’re cooking over very high heat, which allows them to produce some wonderful flavors. For example, their “Chinese Cabbage w/ Chili Sauce” is absolutely amazing…the cabbage leaves are cooked over high heat that allows them to retain crispness, imparting a smoky caramel taste. It’s not swimming in juice either, so the flavors aren’t washed out. It’s deceptively simple and quite delicious.
You’ll notice also that some of the dishes have some resemblance to their Chinese-American counterparts. Sichuan Gourmet has a dish called “Old Sichuan Chicken” that looks a lot like “General Tso’s Chicken.” However, the breading is much more delicate, it’s more savory with just the hint of smoky sweetness, and it really makes you sweat. It’s a fantastic dish.
I guess my advice is to try everything. I’m not really sure what kind of tastes will freak people out. Is it the fear of eating something disgusting, as I felt when I was a kid? The scariest thing on this menu is probably the “Beef Tripe and Tendon in Chili Sauce”, but it’s not actually that bad if you don’t think about it. If you eat natural casing hotdogs with all its mystery pig snout meats, you shouldn’t balk at “Beef Tripe and Tendons”. But ok, you shouldn’t feel BAD about not wanting to eat them either :-)
Most good places will have a secret Chinese-Only menu that has the scarier stuff on it. We ask the waiter to recommend from that menu, since we usually can’t read it. Sichuan Gourmet recently put English on their specials, which is great. Try the “Meatball Sichuan Style”, also known as “Lion’s Head” elsewhere. Don’t worry, it’s not an actual head.
Things to Try
There are a few dishes I like to test at every new Chinese restaurant I visit. I’m not sure if they’re really great “benchmark dishes” or not, so suggestions are welcome
Hot and Sour Soup — I like it. I look for a deep, satisfying complexity that balances hotness and sourness, with just a touch of sweetness. Most of the time, you get too much of one side, and the sense that they’ve thickened it more with cornstarch than love. I had a pretty good one today for lunch at Sichuan Gourmet. It had a big kick of ginger in it, too. Refreshing.
Fried or Steamed Dumplings — In Taiwan, where I spent some time as a kid, I grew up on the thin-skinned variety. In a lot of places here, they have the thicker skins. I’m not sure if this is some horrible difference with the kind of flour they have here, or whether the thin-skin is a Taiwan regional variation. Anyway, the balance of the filling against the delicacy of frying will tell you something about how serious they are about making a yummy dumpling. Most of the time they come out tasting kind of gross and waterlogged, salvaged only through massive injections of soy sauce and vinegar. At best, they are crispy and light, the perfect dough-to-filling ratio bursting with porcine goodness in your mouth…
Dry Stir-fried String Beans — I like this dish when the beans retain their snap, and have a flavorful accompanyment of garlic or pork bits. A lesser place will screw this dish up by overcooking it, resulting in a limp, liquidy mess. They should be dry, crisp, and flavorful, otherwise there is no point.
Ma Po Tofu — I keep looking for a good one. This is supposed to be a spicy hot dish with cubed bean curd in a savory brown sauce. Every restaurant seems to do it a different way. You can use this dish as an anchor point for the rest of the meal…how similar do all the dishes taste compared to it? I especially hate it when I find peas in it…this is NOT A POT PIE! Gross! When it’s great, you will feel the flavor in the back of your sinuses first. Then the rich chili sauces will coat your tongue with unctuous goodness, allowing the perfect cubes of tofu to slide down your throat into your belly as you quiver in helpless ecstasy. Quench with a hot blast of tea, repeat as necessary. Mm.
Scallion Pancake — I’m not sure where this hails from, but we used to eat them in Taiwan. It’s a layered, unleavened circle of flour, with green onions embedded in the batter, kind of like a crisp fried flat bread. It’s quite oily and delicious when done right, just a bit salty. If the restaurant has any pride, they make them fresh. If not, they’re frozen, and you can tell. The aroma just isn’t there, as it is with most non-fresh bread. King Fung Garden, in Chinatown, is famous for their Scallion Pancakes; I’m told that the chefs from other Chinatown restaurants go there just for them.
Fried Spring Rolls — Different from Egg Rolls, which are apparently an invention of Joyce Chen in the 1970s. Spring rolls are lighter, filled with a savory blend of bean sprouts, pork, and oftentimes shrimp. I see these sometimes at the Shanghai-style (as opposed to the more common Cantonese) Dim Sum places; there was one place in the Chicago Chinatown that had them, but otherwise I rarely see them. When a restaurant gets these right (and you will know the moment you taste them), you’re probably in a good place. If you feel nothing, then brace yourself for a disappointing meal.