Marco Polo Redux
Travelers Meiand John Krich
The affinity of Jews to Chinese food reaches its apotheosis inJohn Krich’s “Won Ton Lust: Adventures in Search of the World’s BestChinese Restaurant” (Kodansha, $24). It’s no outrageous stereotype tostate that, as a people, American Jews seem to need a good Chinesemeal to kick-start us into the week. It’s nothing to be ashamed of;neither is it anything to take lightly.
For those of us who agonize over the lack of great Chinese cuisinewest of Monetrey Park or, at least, west of Chinatown, imagine thejoy luck of Manhattan native John Krich. Raised, as were many of us,in “the particularly Jewish-American ritual of ingesting illicitspare ribs, accompanied by bowls of pretzel-like prefab noodles,”Krich met and wed a native of Shanghai, Mei, and together they setoff on a mission to find the best Chinese food not in their SanFrancisco home, not in America, not even in China, but in the wholeworld.
Since the Chinese diaspora at least equals another one we know of,that meant that the Krich’s dined everywhere from Chez Vong in Paris,to Li Li’s in West Melbourne, to Vancouver’s Kowloon, to Kong Yi Jiin Beijing, to Avalon in Gallup, N.M., to Shun Lee Palace in NewYork, to Yujean Kang in Pasadena — 450 meals at 350 restaurants in23 countries over a 15-month span. If you haven’t tried the BuddhaJumps Over the Wall at the Hai Tian Lo in Singapore — a seafood soupcosting $200 per bowl — you deserve the take-out you get.
The couple begins their enviable journey in Venice, Italy, fromwhere Marco Polo once set out to discover the best ice cream,gunpowder and noodles. The Kriches find that — surprise — the wholeworld is crazy over good Chinese. Fortunately, the Chinese themselvesare among its biggest fans, and their single-minded dedication to thecrispiest duck skin or the perfect cup of tea greatly improves theodds of finding an excellent Chinese meal anywhere. (And afterreading “Won Ton Lust,” you’ll never be so thick as to lump all foodfrom China in as broad a term as “Chinese.”)
Even in humble Los Angeles, the Kriches are amused but notdisappointed. They dismiss Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois and the trendyMandarette as more image than eats. But Krich, 47, appreciates YujeanKang, adores the tableside-poached flounder at Charming Garden inMonterey Park (who wouldn’t?) and swoons over the Mint and DuckTongue at Good Chances in the San Gabriel Valley, whose chef oncecooked for Mao.
Throughout, Krich’s writing is chatty and familiar. The book has ahelpful ranking system, a few mostly indifferent recipes and — amajor oversight — no index. But Krich’s eagerness and appetite isinfectious, whether he’s writing about the Taft (néTaffapolski) branch of his family in Melbourne or about New York’sfamed Shun Lee Palace, which reminds him as nothing so much as “animperial Jewish deli.” And there’s more than a little perception inthat description.
Beef with Ginger and Scallions in Clay Pot
This recipe comes from Charming Garden in Monterey Park, courtesyof “Won Ton Lust.”
1/2 pound sliced beef
4 cloves garlic
6 green onions
3 slices ginger
1 tbs. Chinese marinated black beans
1/4 tbs. cornstarch
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 egg white
1/2 tsp. soy sauce
1/4 tsp. rice wine
1/2 tsp. cornstarch
1 tbs. rice wine
2 tbs. chicken broth
Slice the beef thinly against the grain. Combine the marinadeingredients and pour over sliced beef. Stir together.
Crush the garlic and slice green onions into 2-inch pieces. Placethe beans in water, let stand 10 minutes, then drain and mash thebeans. In a separate bowl, blend the cornstarch and 1 tbs. wateruntil smooth.
Heat the oil in a wok. Sauté the beef briefly, then remove.Add garlic and beans, and sauté briefly; add the beef to thepan, and stir-fry until fully cooked. Add the sauce, then thecornstarch mixture. Cook 30 seconds.
Add a little oil to a clay pot or other heat-proof vessel. Placeon the stove until hot, add scallion and ginger. Cook until fragrant,then add beef mixture and serve.
To say that Shalom Hunan is the best kosherChinese food in Los Angeles is not the left-handed compliment itseems.
Granted, the competition is not stiff. This cityand its environs has some of the best Chinese restaurants in theworld (see book review) — the kind of places where I imagine thestaff of Shalom Hunan goes to feast on days off. But the kosherChinese choices I’ve tried — and I haven’t tried them all — seem tostick to bland, oily versions of mid-1970s takeout favorites: kungpao chicken, fried rice, broccoli beef.
Shalom Hunan, a branch of a popular Brookline,Mass., restaurant owned and operated by Chinese-Americans, aimshigher, and mostly succeeds.
It would be easy to fault the restaurant for notliving up to the flavors of other Chinese establishments, butconsider its limitations. Chinese cuisine is the antithesis of kosher– a fact that probably accounts for its rampant popularity amongmany Jews. Its governing laws have everything to do with the complexbalance of clear flavors, in whatever natural form they occur. Kosherlaws severely limit the choice of those forms. None of the standbys,such as shellfish or pork, are allowed, of course. Neither arestandard Chinese condiments, such as oyster sauce. On the plus side,the cooking naturally is dairy-free, so the bane of kosher cuisine –dairy substitutes — needn’t appear.
Unfortunately, while stunning, completelyvegetarian Chinese cuisines exist (try the non-hechshered Fragrant Vegetable inMonterey Park), Chinese kosher chefs feel compelled to imitate themenus of non-kosher restaurants. That’s where Shalom Hunan’sweaknesses show. Appetizers such as “spareribs” ($3.50), beef eggrolls ($1.95) and chicken in foil ($3.95) are notable for the flavorsthey lack. Beef with Broccoli ($10.95) is simply salty, not complexor intense.
But there are many successes. Egg Drop Soup($2.50), thick as a bog, can be a flavorful cold-weather boost.Flavors of citrus and garlic burst forth from Orange Flavored Chicken($12.95) and Shredded Beef with Garlic Sauce ($10.95). You might askfor more heat with your Hunan Fish ($16.95) and Kung Pao Chicken($9.50), but the dishes don’t disappoint.
The lunch specials, a mid-city bargain at around$6.50, are usually filling and flavorful. I can’t help but think thatbehind the pots and pans at Shalom Hunan is a chef who, given theopportunity, could really impress.
And it is no small fact that Shalom Hunan,situated in the former home of the Shanghai Winter Garden, issumptuous in a way restaurants used to be. Deep booths, rich woodcarvings, scarlet rugs, paper lamps dripping gold tassels, etchedscreens setting off quiet rooms in the large elegant space — nokosher restaurant in Los Angeles, period, can boast such atmosphere.And few have Shalom Hunan’s attentive, efficient servers.
At Shalom Hunan, you can wait for your friends inthe bar, sipping a scotch or an Israeli red, then eat a kosherChinese banquet that is, as the movie says, as good as itgets.
Shalom Hunan, 5651 Wilshire Blvd. (213)934-0505. –Robert Eshman