Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two Sticks and a Bowl

   As a child in the 50's, all I knew of Chinese food was Chung King Chop Suey, a concoction of mystery meat, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, celery and cornstarch in a can, with a can of fried noodles attached. As a teen in Kansas City I graduated to the next level by frequenting the only Chinese Restaurant in town, the House of Toy. Here you got all the standard dishes designed for white folks: Almond Chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Sweet and Sour Pork, Pressed Duck, etc. This was an exotic experience for us "corn bred, corn fed" types. Not to mention that this was the only place you saw a Chinese face, unless you were going to UMKC and happened to run into a foreign exchange student from the Biology Dept. When I returned to KC in 1977 after a seven year hiatus, I was amazed to find a slew of Chinese restaurants in the phone book, as well as an Oriental grocery store. I went to a place that billed itself as an authentic Hunan-Szechuan style eatery, ready to expose it for the sham that I thought it would surely be. Was I in for a surprise - the food was not only the real deal, but the chef came out and made hand-pulled noodles, which elicited a flood of 'oohs' and 'aahs'. Well KC, you've certainly come of age, I said to myself.
   In my early days in SF I came to appreciate one of the most redeeming values of Chinese food - it's cheap! Those of us who weren't bicycle messengers needed something to live on besides burritos, and fried rice was the answer. Before its closure, the Yee Jun Restaurant on Washington St. was the oldest existing Chinese place in SF. In its prime it was a hippie haven. A giant bowl of fried rice was 75 cents, and often the one meal of the day for some folks. In addition it had the major funk - marble table tops, cool wooden booths that looked like they could, at any given moment, revolve into the wall and be replaced by an empty duplicate, the previous occupants waking up far out at sea. The waiters all looked to be ninety years old and said little other than 'you ready order?' There was this one geezer who called everyone "John". I would always say my name wasn't John, to which he would reply, 'OK John, what you want?' Later on, in a book on the history of the Chinese in California, I discovered that Caucasians used 'John' as a pejorative  term for all Chinese men. This waiter was just getting his kicks. The owners seemed to get a kick out of their clientele as well, and paid homage by decorating the beautiful wrought iron cashier's cage with little signs that said 'RIGHT ON' and 'FAR OUT' and of course 'GROOVY!'
   The terms 'Cantonese', 'Mandarin', 'Peking Style' etc. had no meaning for me then. It was only after I'd gotten settled in and made some friends at a local bar that I got exposed to variations on the theme. There was a fellow named Ed Bingham who not only loved Chinese food but spoke fluent Mandarin as well. He took some of us to a place called Ya Su Yuan that served Peking style dishes - I was knocked out. From that night on I went there every weekend and tried as many new dishes as possible. I even got one of the waiters to give me an old, tattered menu that I had translated so I could order dishes properly, no matter what restaurant I was visiting.
   One evening I noticed that the food at Ya Su Yuan wasn't up to snuff. I commented to the waiter, who said the chef had quit to open his own restaurant, but he didn't know where. I nearly had a breakdown on the spot, but managed to recover back at the bar, where Ed and I commiserated over several pints. For the next couple of weeks I wandered around Chinatown in a fog, looking for a sign, a familiar face, any clue that would help me find a replacement. And then one day on Jackson St., in the midst of a dozen eateries, I looked at the menu in the window of a place called Hui Bing Low. It looked amazingly like the menu at Ya Su Yuan; there was the little pig icon next to "Pork Dishes" and ditto the cow next to "Beef Dishes". The selections were the same. I ran inside and anxiously asked the waiter where the chef was from; he said 'Taiwan'. I said, 'no, what restaurant?' 'Oh, he used to work one block over on Pacific'. Yahoo! It was my main man. I sat down and ordered two of my favorite dishes. The waiter introduced himself as Paul and told me the chef was in fact his father. I tried to explain how relieved I was to find him, but I think it went over his head. No matter - it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
   Things got even better when Steve Chin became a waiter there. Steve was Mongolian by heritage, grew up in Japan and went to collge in Manhattan, KS. He later on opened the best Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area, Szechuan Village, in Daly City. He was a real live wire, a hustler and go-getter. Anything that I wanted to try that wasn't on the menu, no problem, Steve put it on the table. I started to have banquets there, gathering ten people and saying hey, it's ten bucks plus beers, tax and tip,we eat whatever comes out the gate. People were a little less picky and more adventuresome in those days, so this wasn't difficult. On one occasion Steve brought out a small plate containing strips of some unidentifiable substance. He wouldn't say what it was until everyone sampled some. It was a little chewy and tasted of soy sauce and maybe a little five spice. He finally told us it was pig's ear. There were a couple of groans, but it was all eaten. The cooks apparently kept a whole pig's head in a bucket of soy and spices, and whenever they needed a quick snack they just sliced off a chunk to chew on while flailing away at the woks. Yummy nums! Today, I can find pig's ear on the menu at several places in town.
   Hui Bing Low eventually fell victim to 'window insurance', a euphemism for extortion, and were forced to move out of The City to Burlingame. With the closing of Happy Family in the Richmond and the aforementioned Szechuan Village, we lost some of the best Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area.
   I became a bit of a snob, disdaining the blandness of Cantonese cuisine - something I've since overcome with the years. I wanted it hot and spicy and I couldn't seem to get it hot enough, no matter what adjective I used. I never got around to drawing a flaming ass on a napkin and I doubt that would've helped. I got my wish, and then some, one night at the original Hunan on Kearny St. I sat at the counter and ordered a chicken dish from the waiter; I said 'extra hot'. All the cooks were women that night, one of them a big gal right in front of me. I saw her read my order and I swear she mumbled some thing like 'extra hot - sheeit'. When the dish came I could see I was in trouble. It was covered in red chile flakes. I had at it and soon the sweat was pouring down the back of my neck like a waterfall. I kept thinking of the old moose turd pie joke - 'it's good though, real good'. At one point she turned around and saw it was me eating her little joke; the look of contempt on her face made me feel special. At the register she gave another loving glance. I looked her dead in the eye and said, "That was pretty good, but it could've been a little spicier". I bolted to Vesuvio to quell the fire with some Anchor Steam.
   I made two exceptions to the spicy rule. There weren't many places open after closing time except for one on Jackson St. called Sai Yon, a Cantonese place which featured the bonus of 'cold tea', beer served in teapots. Our waiters, Wing and Albert, knew which side their won ton was buttered on and kept the suds flowing. They also apprised us of which vegetables were the freshest, what fish was available, etc. This was in an era when you could barely get a Chinese waiter to give you the time of day. They liked to have their bit of fun now and then, like the time Albert sternly advised us that there was no cold tea. We were like a bunch of little boys who'd been told there would be no chocolate milk after nap time. We glumly ordered and Albert set out teacups and ceremoniously poured. He then went off to huddle in a corner with Wing. Everyone had a sip of their tea and gasped - it was Scotch! The conspirators in the corner were laughing sheepishly into their hands, avoiding our glance.
   My other choice wasn't exactly Chinese, but served in a place called Wooey Loy Gooey, still extant at 699 Jackson St. This was roast pork, the best roast pork ever, bar none. Sliced fresh off the joint, served with boiled cabbage, rice and brown gravy that I would've gladly licked off of someone else's tie, it was that good. I always politely asked for gravy on the rice as well as the pork, and I got it because I think they sensed my deep affection for gravy.
   Over the years I've developed a litmus test for new restaurants if I'm dining alone. If it's a Mandarin/Hunan/Szechuan place I order a dish called Ma Po Do Fu, roughly meaning 'old lady bean curd'. A famous dish of Szechuan origin, it's usually listed as 'Spicy Bean Curd' or something similar and it can be ordered without meat. I've had it made in a number of variations, but I prefer it with pork and soft bean curd. The pork has to be fresh and trust me, I've had some pork that made me wonder if I'd live through the night. The soft bean curd is hard to find because it requires a gentle hand or it'll fall apart. Some cooks add peas or mushrooms; scallions are a requisite in my book. As long as the ratio of meat to curd is good and there's a hint of black pepper and sesame oil, I'm happy. If I like it, I go back.
  In a Cantonese place I like what is generally listed as Beef and Bean Curd. A simple dish on the surface, it makes a good Lunch Special Rice Plate. The drawbacks are beef that looks grayish and has a mushy texture like it's been sitting in a marinade with too much baking soda. Some cooks have a heavy hand with the cornstarch, resulting in a sauce that clings to your fork and can be strung out like chewing gum - very unappetizing. Bean curd can be past its prime, with a mottled appearance and chewy consistency. In some places they throw in some black mushrooms, always a bonus.
  There have been some downsides to eating Chinese food. The attitude of waiters could be daunting in the old days. Trying to order anything written in Chinese, whether on the menu or on the wall, would bring a response like, 'you don't want to try' or 'you don't like'. This was true once when I ordered Deep Fried Pork Intestines (chitlins) and only because they weren't cleaned properly. If you wanted to try something different, you had to go with a Chinese person. Another stupefying incident occured when I ordered Beef and Asparagus. The menu had Beef and Broccoli and Pork and Asparagus listed, so I thought, hey, shouldn't be a problem. When I ordered the waiter sinply said, 'sorry, not on menu'. When I pointed out the two dishes on the menu, he got huffy. 'Not on menu!' I got up and left.
   Today there are more women servers and they're definitely friendlier and more helpful. I can ask about a dish that goes by my table and get the Chinese name for it as well. At the old VIP restaurant on Geary Blvd. I asked about a dish on the wall that I thought was chicken, since the last kanji (character) in the name was 'chicken'. The server giggled and said it was frog. She explained that the preceding character, combined with the last, denoted frog (tian gai). When I looked up the mystery kanji, it stood for 'rice paddy' or 'field'. So a frog is a rice paddy chicken. You gotta love it!
   An irksome, but necessary, evolution in Chinese (and other Asian) restaurants was the demise of re-usable wooden chopsticks. This came about when the Health Dept. outlawed the use of wooden surfaces of any kind, citing a bacteria problem, an unfortunate reality. Some places went to the washable plastic kind, which are the right length but present difficulties with slippery foods. The other option is disposable wooden sticks, which offer better gripping ability but are generally too short for my taste, and some are the Japanese style with pointy tips that make it hard to pick up those tiny last bits.
   A sidebar to the chopstick subject: it drives me crazy to watch someone who's obviously inept sit there and make a mess when they could be eating, There's no stigma attached to using a fork. If you insist on chopsticks, don't blame me when all the food's gone and you're still hungry.
   One last subject of debate: pricing. It has often been said that we lo fan (white folks) pay the prices on the menu, while our Asian counterparts pay less. This is something that I've never bothered to substantiate, and I don't think it's worth the effort. When I consider the quality and quantity of food served, it's a pretty good deal all around. The only double standard I know is in the names of restaurants - the English name and the name in kanji are often quite dissimilar.
   My most memorable dining experience was at a place called Soon Lee, out near the end of Church St. in Noe Valley; it was a spot for white people who were just too lazy to go somewhere else. I ordered some Szechaun chicken dish that looked good in theory. It turned out to be one of those dishes where they compensate for the lack of meat by adding a pound of onions and bell pepper. I was picking around the plate when I discovered something that wasn't readily identifiable. I held it up in the air, turning it in all directions. Finally I discerned a little head, a bit of a tail, but no feet. It was a salamander, about four inches long. I got the waiter's attention and asked if this would cost extra. He looked like he might have to change his shorts. 'You get something else, you don't pay!' I declined the different dish but took him up on the 'no pay' offer. I went back to this place after it changed ownership and it was even worse. The food was like something that comes out of a bag marked 'Open Here - Pour In Trough - Add Water'.
   If I could wish for something, it would be the influx of new regional cuisines. The last major star was Henry Chung's Hunan restaurant, which Calvin Trillin rated one of the best places in the world (a bit overboard, I think). The mood is still predominately Cantonese, who have succumbed to the notion that more oil is better (it is a sign of prosperity, I'm told). Spices I and II have introduced the Taiwan style with snack plates and chou do fu, the 'stinky bean curd'. We are sadly lacking a major Chiu Chow (Chao Zhou) restaurant. Even with the largest Chinese population in the US, it seems there is more diversity in the Flushing area of Queens and in the San Gabriel Valley area of LA. Jonathan Gold, noted food critic, says it seems to him like some areas cook for the Asian people and others cook for the rest of us. All I can say is, find a place you like, get to know some of the people that own it or work there, and start getting that stuff on the wall (and things that aren't listed anywhere!)

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