Monday, March 22, 2010

Chinese Food



[I owe My Darker Gray Friend, Michelle, some inspiration for this. See what she has to say about food!]

On Saturday, I went out to eat with some old friends. I can call them old, with no hard feelings, because I’m the oldest of them all. I’m 53, while the rest of the guys are 47 and 48, mere babes by comparison. They were – and, at least for a short while, will again be – bandmates. We had lots of laughs trading old war stories about our times on stage together, and via catching up on what’s transpired for each of us during the close to thirty intervening years. We also planned possible times and places to get together for some jamming. We’ll play like it’s 1980 again (except with less hair.)

Live Wire (later, Powerline) was the name of the band. I published a story about them not too long ago, and if you want some background, here it is. If you’d like to hear a sample of our playing, this will do. It’s an original tune called Flashback, performed during a studio session from 1981. In truth, I was never happy with the recordings from that session. Among other lacks, my bass was recorded thin; it has no body. I’m sure the other guys might have similar complaints concerning their parts in it. Nevertheless, as a representative sample of the type of music we wrote and played, it has merit. Aside from me on bass, it features Ronnie Bower and Ron Frattasio on guitars, Steve Giusti on drums, and Marty “Sucks” Murphy on vocals.

(Tomorrow, I’ll be posting some photos and other memorabilia contained in a scrapbook that Steve brought to our reunion. And, in future, as we get together to play, I’ll probably give you something good to listen to from the sessions. I hope so, anyway.)

The place where we got together to rehash old times was Tahiti, a Chinese restaurant just outside of Boston. It’s a real old-school place, specializing in American Chinese cuisine and serving the sort of drinks that, as a kid, you laughed about when you saw them on the menu. For instance, both Steve and I sampled the joys of a Suffering Bastard. I had never had one before, and with the first sip I understood where downing four or five of those concoctions might turn you into one the next morning. The main ingredients were supposedly various rums, but if I hadn’t known, I might have guessed turpentine.

It’s always interesting to see what folks will order when they get Chinese food. From my experience, people tend to order the same things over and over, getting very defensive about their choices. Some people will even go so far as to say "it isn’t really Chinese food unless you order [fill in the blank]"

For instance, My Dad never varied from the same four choices during my childhood. Whenever we went out to a Chinese restaurant, or ordered some take out, it was Sweet & Sour Chicken, Pork Fried Rice, Egg Rolls, and Pork Strips. Until I was ten years old, I had no idea that any other types of Chinese food existed. Then, one Saturday, after Stephen Murphy and I had attended a kiddy matinee at our local movie house (The Oriental, oddly enough), we found ourselves hungry and Stephen suggested we go to Cathay Village, which was just around the corner and which was also where our respective parents always bought our take out. On the way, we discussed what we might afford, as we each had about 75 cents. I figured that would be good enough for an egg roll, at least, but Stephen suggested we might be able to pool our money and get something called a Poo-Poo Platter. Well, of course, I laughed and laughed. Poo-Poo! There couldn’t possibly be something to eat that was named after poop! Stephen swore there was. And he was right, although I found out, from looking at the menu, that it was spelled Pu-Pu (and also that we couldn’t afford it, so we ended up ordering the "Businessman’s Special", which was Pork Fried Rice and an Egg Roll for 55 cents, and thus my palate was not yet truly expanded as that was basically half of what my father usually ordered for our family.)

(MY WIFE just now reminded me of a funny story concerning Chinese food and the ordering of the same thing every time. She worked with a fellow who always ordered from the ‘dinner specials’ section of the menu; you know, where there are plates containing three or four specific items, and you order by the number assigned to that plate? Well, anyway, without variation, this guy always ordered number 13 from the restaurant he frequented. One time, he found himself at a different restaurant, and – without looking at the menu - he ordered special number 13. When it arrived, he found himself staring at something totally unexpected and foreign to him. It seems he was under the impression that all of the numbered dishes were the same at every Chinese restaurant in the world. To top it off, not only was he disappointed to find he hadn’t received what he wanted, he also had no idea what exactly a number 13 at HIS restaurant was comprised of, and, in order to get what he enjoyed, he sheepishly had to ask his dining companion just what it was he had been eating all of those years.)

It wasn’t until I started smoking dope that I tried anything different at a Chinese restaurant. On an excursion into Boston’s Chinatown with my stoned buddies, they all ordered something called Beef & Broccoli. Not wanting to look weird, I ordered it, too. And, when it arrived, I ate it with great gusto and delight. I quickly found out, on various outings with other groups of friends, about such treats as Chicken Chow Mein, Lobster Sauce, and Egg Fu Yung (which, for some reason, my pals all laughingly referred to as ‘brains in gravy’, and that’s what I still think of every time I see it.) Ever since those days, I’ve been an avid aficionado - and defender of - low-rent Cantonese/Polynesian menus that are scoffed at by fans of Szechuan and other regional styles. And I’ve also cemented in my mind three items of the cuisine that I consider absolute must-haves for any Chinese meal: Lobster Sauce, Fried Rice, and Egg Rolls.

The toughest one to defend in the face of scorn is, of course, the lobster sauce. For one thing, it contains no lobster.

(I once ordered from a very high-end Chinese restaurant – The Golden Temple, in Brookline - for a get together with my good friend, Fast Freddy Goodman. The lobster sauce from that place is easily the best I have ever tasted, and Fred pretty much concurred with that assessment when he tried it. When I informed him that the menu stated the stuff was actually “lobster infused”, he – with the same lifetime of knowledge concerning lobster sauce as I have – said, "Yeah, right. The closest a lobster has been to this is when they held one over the pot and he pissed in it." Quick comeback, and that’s why he’s called Fast Freddy. However, he was probably close to the truth. I suspect they boil lobsters for other purposes, and then use some of that water for the prep of the lobster sauce. It is fantastic, in any case.)

(As a further aside, for those of you who may eat in Boston and environs someday, the place where the guys and I ate on Saturday, Tahiti, has the second-best lobster sauce on the planet. Rich, thick, dark, delightful.)

Anyway, when it came time to order, I suggested the lobster sauce and fried rice. Ron had already ordered a pu-pu platter for the table, so I knew I’d be getting my egg rolls, as well as spare ribs, chicken fingers, chicken wings, and beef teriyaki. One of the other guys requested chow mein, and another ordered crab rangoon (which, to my ear, always sounds like a really grouchy Asian wrestler.) We rounded out the meal with General Gau’s Chicken (which I’ve seen listed on other menus as General Zau’s Chicken and General Tsao’s Chicken, so it’s either a bogus name invented to fool Americans or, as I prefer to believe, so delicious that, during some time in ancient Chinese history, three generals actually shed blood for the honor of having the dish named after them.) Thus satisfied that we had all covered our various ‘must-have’ items, we sat back and awaited the food’s arrival, enjoying each other’s company tremendously while plotting a future assault upon the world’s eardrums.

As I said earlier, I’ll be posting some more stuff about the band tomorrow. In the meantime, however, I’d love to hear what YOUR ‘must-have’ items are when ordering Chinese food. Don’t feel constrained to limit yourself to Cantonese or American Chinese, if that’s not your favorite style. If your tastes run to the more exotic, I’d love to hear about them. And, if the things I’ve talked about are literally foreign to you, please expound about your particular region. I have no idea, for instance, whether you U.K. readers have ever encountered such a thing as lobster sauce. If you haven’t? You’re probably healthier, but definitely not happier.

Soon, with more better stuff (and less MSG.)


45 comments:

Elaine said...

I LOVE chinese food, and we have as many chinese restaurants here as you have burger joints.

Current faves:

Mixed veg with cashew nuts
Special Chow Mein
Hot Crispy Beef with Carrots
Sweet and Sour Pork Hong Kong Style
Special Fried Rice.

Shall I continue?

I've pretty much gone through the entire menu of our local, and the weirdest thing I ordered had powdered fish sprinkled on the top. That was nasty.

We do get it all delivered for free though, so I shall continue ordering and sampling :)

Eleonora said...

Thanks, now I'm hungry all over again. I tend to always order the same things too. The comfort of habit.

Ciao Jim
Lola xx

GreenJello said...

Best Chinese food I ever ate was at a restaurant of a daughter of a Chinese chef. They imported all the liquor they cooked with from China. To. Die. For.

First Chinese experience was when I was about 9 or so, and we ate in Seattle Chinatown. The menu was mostly in Chinese, and my dad ordered pretty much what your dad's standard order was. I was hooked for life.

Favorites now: moo goo gai pan, Mongolian beef, anything with "orange" in the title, and spring rolls.

And when I break open my cookie, read the fortune, I always add "in bed" to the end of it. :)

Cricket said...

My one must-have would be Peking Dumplings, absolutely.

Other than that, I'm pretty flexible. Another thing I like to order when I can is Kao-fu - a hideous looking but very tasty seitan concoction.

Ma-po tofu makes me smile, too.

Brian Miller said...

i love chinese as well though i tend to mix it up quite a bit...especially if there is a buffet...the constant are the wontons...mmm....

Jazz said...

Much as I like chinese food, it has taken a back seat to my passion for vietnamese and thai food...

Matt Conlon said...

Big fan of Chinese food... Jim, it's funny to read about the places you frequent, having grown up in Brookline, and then further south down near the Tahiti, it's funny to hear them talked about!

I used to work in South Boston, a quick jaunt from China town. A coworker of mine who happened to be Chinese would take us to some of the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants where you sit at a big table, elbow to elbow with strangers... The food was the best I've ever had. It's like what we have, only light, not greasy, and you feel good when you're done, instead of overfull, yet somehow still hungry.

Daryl said...

Havent had Chinese food in a long long time ... but when we did order in (here in NYC every restaurant, that wants to make its rent each month, delivers)we'd get:
Beef/Broccoli, Shrimp Fried Rice and an Egg roll .... for ToonMan .. for me, it depends on where we order from, I dont eat meat .. but I do love Vegetable Lo Mien and an egg roll from Ollie's ... as a kid living in the Bronx we'd go out for Chinese occasionally and I always had Shrimp in Lobster Sauce and an egg roll ...

And now, thank you very much NOT, I have a serious jones going for both a joint AND an egg roll .. please please please can I have your sweet/sour sauce packet?

Land of shimp said...

I'm not the biggest fan of Chinese food, but Thai is really quite good. I do wonder who originated half of the dishes presented to Americans as Chinese, don't you? Probably some dude named Fred is at the bottom of it all, and he was likely born and bred in Cleveland.

By the way, you're old enough to remember this too: Do you recall the myth about burping? "It's a compliment to the Chef." was bandied about, and entire hosts of Americans believed that belching with gusto after eating Chinese food was considered the highest praise?

I also wonder who introduced that gem, because it's considered the height of rudeness, of course. But likely some Brit, or Swede or heck, Japanese person planted that and it spread through America.

Just the image of Americans letting loose with echoing belches and then looking inordinately pleased slays me each time.

No wonder we were fed things like candied, deep-fried meat in retaliation ;-)

Michelle H. said...

Before I talk about favorite Chinese foods...

I listened to the recording. It reminds of a super-young Aerosmith, in regards to the style of music. Don't know why I also had it in my mind your band played deeper stuff, like Ozzy Osbourne-esque or Megadeth.

Okay, back to the food. Chicken and broccoli is one I always ordered although on occasion I switched it up with shrimp. Chicken Lo Mein is another. I once had what was called a Dragon and Phoenix, which had General Tso/Tzu (that's the regional spellings here) and fried shrimp. I also love the fried rices. Szechuan(sp?) chicken too.

I'm not a big fan for the crab rangoon or chicken teriyaki. But that might have just been from the restaurant where I ordered. I also have to agree with Jazz. When I've tried Thai, especially Thai chicken and broccoli, there's no comparision. Chinese food takes a back seat no matter how much I enjoy it.

(Funny, I had it yesterday actually.)

Uncle Skip, said...

Moo shoo pork is a must.

IT said...

What's the story on 'aluminum foil chicken' and 'aluminum foil beef?'

Eva Gallant said...

We usually get take out, as the only restaurant with good Chinese food (as I know it) close by just has about four booths and no ambiance. We get the Tidbits (consists of chicken fingers, chicken wings, bonesless spareribs, egg rolls, and fried shrimp). We add an orde of pork fried rice and an order of crab rangoon, and we're in heaven!

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

I'm a shrimp lo mein man myself, but in my experience, there's no such thing as bad Chinese food.

It must be softball season . . . you've thrown out the first Fast Freddy reference of the year.

TechnoBabe said...

Mine is pretty boring. Chicken fried rice. Lemon chicken. Seafood lo mein is good anytime. Our favorite oriental buffet place just closed its doors so we will be looking for a new oriental place. One of the things at the place that closed was the Mongolian grill, and I would fill a bowl with veggies and they would grill and bring it to me. Best part of the place. I am going to miss it.

Suldog said...

I'm reading all of your marvelous comments and now (much as Daryl) I am absolutely jonesing for another helping of Chinese. Thank you for the thoughtful replies, and curse you for making my belly rumble!

Moannie said...

The first time I ate Chinese food was on a date with JP in '57. I was hospitalized for almost three months with dysentery-a story worthy of a post...hmmmm!???

I always order seafood because there is no danger of disquised fat or gristle[sorry, pet hates. Anyway...'fraid to say that I can cook Chinese food at home]

Tonight we are having Argintinan rabbit with creamy mash and sauteed cabbage followed by Rhubarb crumble...would you want to eat out? Your friends and YOUR WIFE are welcombed too. XXX

Ananda girl said...

Ha! I love Suffering Bastards! Did they have Samoan Fog-Cutters too? What about Scorpions where it comes in a bowl with several straws?

Ut-oh... maybe it doesn't sound so good to have such an enthusiasm for Chinese restaurant drinks.

As for the food... paper wrapped chicken, crab puffs, low mein, general tsao. YUM!!!!

Matt Conlon said...

Hah! You started it Jim!

If you should happen into Chinatown again, I recommend a place called "Dong Khans" on Washington street. Get the beef soup with vermicelli. A small is probably enough, the larges could feed a small village.

Also, treat yourself to a pineapple shake. No "Pearls"...

Steer clear of the Durian shake... Wondering what a Durian is?

Uncle Skip, said...

...finally had the opportunity to listen to the studio play. I always wondered what a 'skinny bass' was.

I had a dream the other night that somehow I was playing bass with my brothers-in-law and the nephews (there are five - all musicians). You'd have to know me better to understand just how ridiculous the dream was. Just the idea would be a nightmare for them.

I learned to appreciate Chinese food at a place in Aina Haina (Honolulu) called Fong Fong Chop Suey when I would visit cousins (in-law) while I was in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. One of the first things I learned was to be careful of what you put in your mouth when eating ginger beef.

picture of moo shoo pork

Rhea said...

I've always wondered about that Tahiti place (Dedham, right?). You lived to tell about it and I like old-school Chinese, so maybe I should try it?

Anali said...

You're so right about ordering the same thing! I'm not really a huge Chinese food fan. I prefer Italian food. But if I have it, either I've been peer pressured into it or I had a random craving.

And since it's so infrequent, I always get my standby dish, Moo Shu Chicken. Oh and I love fortune cookies! I love the fortune part and I like the actual taste of the cookies. Crunchy and sweet!

One thing that I really don't like about Chinese restaurants is that there is no real dessert there, which is so odd because Chinese bakeries are awesome. Why can't they offer the desserts in the restaurants? I'll never understand it...

Uncle Skip, said...

Oops! I should have said Kaimuki, not Aina Haina.

Suldog said...

Anali - At The Cathay Village, the Chinese restaurant of my youth, in addition to Fortune Cookies, one was always given what my friends and I called "bird seed candy" which was a jellied concoction covered in sesame seeds. I haven't had that - whatever it's actual name was - in years. I sure wish I could!

Buck said...

Favorite Chinese? Dim Sum. The Second Mrs. Pennington and I used to go to a couple o' three good dim sum places across the river in Windsor when we lived in Dee-troit for Sunday brunch, and I carried on the tradition when I lived in SFO (which has some WORLD-class Chinese joints).

Portales, as might be expected, comes up a lil bit short in the Chinese restaurant dept. But we do have two mediocre ones, not bad for a burg of 12K.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Mmmmm...sounds delicious...I have a lot of food allergies, and so I don't eat out...but love to experiment in the kitchen...not that I'm any good at it...but I try ...LOL...And this post is definitely making me HUNGRY...better go see what I can concoct for a late lunch! As always, a very fun post, Jim! Glad you all had a great get-together! Nothing like longtime friends! Hugs, Janine

Christina LMT said...

Kung-pao chicken
Cashew chicken
Sweet and sour pork
hot and sour soup
crab rangoon
mongolian beef
etc, etc...

Craig said...

When I eat Chinese, I always have the hot & sour soup, the egg rolls, and the Chinese dumplings. If I feel like splurging, I'll grab some of the crab Rangoon, too. I don't know the precise names of all the entrees, but I like anything that looks like stir-fried vegetables and chicken. Or shrimp.

Oddly, I wasn't hungry a minute ago, but I am now. . .

Tim King said...

Just checked out the "Flashback" track... Too many effects! (But IIRC that was typical of music of that period.)

As a fellow bassist myself, your bass rocks. Didn't know you were that good!

-TimK

Ericka said...

i worked in a chinese restaurant in college and the BEST food was the stuff the cooks made for us for lunch that wasn't on the menu. there was one dish with chicken, yellow curry and potatoes... oh god, i'd kill for it!

if i have to order off the menu, chicken fried rice, veggie egg rolls, veggie potstickers, chicken stir fry and veggie lomein are my favorites. yum.

The Good Cook said...

AHH... I am one of the luckiest eaters in the world as China Town is only a mere tunnel and 30 minutes from my house. So... DIM SUM!! Many, many delights mister... and Peking Duck. Oh, yes. Steamed dumplings, cashew chicken, Moo-Shu Pork, Sweet Rice Balls (don't get funny)... Red Bean Paste in Rice, oh... I could go on and on and on...

The flavors, the textures, the aromas... it is after 11:00 and I am tempted to find a 24 hour take-out. You, mister, are evil for reminding me of all the pleasures of Chinese Cuisine.

Looking forward to tomorrow's post...

Joan said...

I always order the same things. Chicken Fried Rice, Egg Rolls, and Chow Main. Love these! The other items on the menu, not so much. :)

Joan said...

Just looked at my take out menu. My spelling wasn't too good. I should say Chow Mein. :) I have a Chinese Restaurant 2 blocks from my house. Dinner comes very quick. :) They have so much to offer. I should try something new!

screwdestiny said...

Mmm, I love Chinese food. We have a great place in town that is super tasty and super cheap and we go all the time. My favorites are egg rolls (but not those nasty "spring rolls"; they have to have chicken or pork in them), beef and broccoli, chicken and broccoli, sesame chicken, pork fried rice, ham fried rice, chicken chow mein, orange chicken if it's not spicy, and the mandarin chicken from Panda Express (but do they even count as a Chinese food place?). Oh, egg flower soup and cheese puffs are delicious, too. Man, now I am hella hungry.

Shrinky said...

I love crispy seaweed, but I've never heard of lobster sauce, would that be akin to oyster sauce (which I love)? The beauty of having a family of six means we can easily experiment and share different dishes. I could never imagine sitting down to a Chinese meal with only ONE dish in front of me. Funny thing is, it wasn't until leaving home I ever tried any "foreign" cuisine, my folks were far from adventurous on the food front. Actually, you've put me in mind of a food story of my own - thanks for that!

I can't wait to see you and the guys perform, well, virtually that is (grin).

i beati said...

anything spicy. Can't eat it anymore and those cream cheese wontons. alas gone from my diet. i always loved Thai food with natural spices..burp..sandy

Suldog said...

For those who don't know what lobster sauce is, here's my best explanation. If someone else can fill in more detail, please do so.

It's a concoction of ground pork and/or beef, garlic, thick gravy, and minor (very minor) bits of vegetable, perhaps scallions.

There are two styles, so far as I know. The one I like is dark and rich. I am not sure of the spices used, but most certainly thickened with corn starch or something like that. Think of a very rich beef stew with no vegetables and the meat sort of ground up; best I can do.

The other style - which is probably more authentic, but less my favorite - is a lighter color, almost beige, with eggs whisked into it and much less meat, if any. It is actually used in the dish Lobster Cantonese, as a sauce, and thus the name. The type I like is a bastardization and has probably never seen a lobster :-)

IMHO, the best way to eat it is to spoon it over fried rice, mix it all together with a bit of duck sauce as a sweetener. Yum!

Pat - Arkansas said...

I like Chinese food very much, and have become addicted to Hot and Sour Soup, which I could consume by the quart, at least. However, when the craving for Chinese food is flung upon me, although there are two Chinese restaurants almost within walking distance, I drive 10 miles to another one, just because of the H&S soup. I am quite fond of "brains in gravy," too. :) My favorite meal is H&S soup, General Tsao's Chicken, Shrimp with vegetables, steamed rice, Spring Rolls with sweet/sour sauce,and a pot of Jasmine tea. Yum!

Pat - Arkansas said...

P.S. In case you haven't figured it out yet --- I'm baaaack! :)

More, later. :) Yes, I admit I stole that from you! :) Thanks, m'dear.

Hilary said...

Oh yum! I love Chinese food and haven't had any for a long while.

My must-haves are egg rolls or spring rolls with lots of plum sauce, honey garlic spare ribs, chicken fried rice (with the spare ribs sauce mixed into it) and anything with a load of crunchy veggies in it. I've never tried lobster sauce - really, I had no clue just what it was until I just read your explanation, but now it's a must-try for next time. Thanks. :)

Karen said...

I could eat Chinese food two times a year and be completely satisfied - just not one of my favorites, but I do like Salt & Pepper Shrimp!

lime said...

dude, it's 10pm and now i am jonesing for spicy chicken and cashews, spring rolls, and buddha's delight!

Jeni said...

Shame on you for making me so damned hungry! And, I'm supposed to be on a diet too, remember that, will you please. (This being said after I just polished off the last of the vanilla ice cream with the swirls of orange sherbet in it, ya know!)
But anyway, I do love, love, love Chinese foods -thus far, I can't think of the name of any that I haven't liked/loved. General Tso's -yeah, one of my favs, along with Hot and Sour Soup too. I much prefer going to Oriental restaurants that specialize in buffets though that way I don't have to make just one choice but can get a dabble of almost everything on the table! I also like other oriental foods too -Korean (worked with two different folks over the years who whipped up some really awesome Korean stuff) and also Thai (my son's ex-fiance had spent time as an exchange student in Thailand and she could make some really neat dishes. (Ultra spicy they were but then, I love the ultra spicy, ya know!)
Wish there was a Chinese takeout some where near where I live as I'd be sending Mandy off to get some for me for a midnight snack!

Ruth and Glen said...

Shrimp Lo Mein ! Like the others, this post sure made us hungry. We're in Chugwater, Wyoming now. Not very optomistic about finding a Chinese restaurant here.

Jenn said...

Forget the crock pot beef stew I made yesterday, I know what we're getting for dinner tonight! I am totally drooling over here.

Every time we order we get crab rangoon (best ANYWHERE is Changhai in Lexington), Peking ravioli (sometimes called dumplings), egg rolls and I am a white rice kind of gal (because I had a pork fried food poisoning experience once that was not pretty). Every time we order though we try at least one new thing. Sometimes good, sometimes bad but at least we get a chance to mix it up. Lo mein, chow mein, chicken cashew (with pineapple)...

That reminds me...the BEST Chinese food I've ever had in my life was when we were in Galway, Ireland on our honeymoon. No I am not kidding. I still dream about that meal sometimes.