Forbidden City Food
"Not frozen egg rolls, homemade egg rolls!" the proprietor of Peking Cuisine insists. I must have rolled my eyes a little when he said the lunch special came with hot and sour soup and an egg roll on the side.
He was right: It's a damn good egg roll. And the hot and sour soup is even better. Not only is it properly murky and thick with black fungi and chewy lily blossoms, it is really hot and really sour. But oddly, I discover, this isn't really Peking-style hot and sour soup. Peking expats order the "deluxe" hot and sour soup, the waitress tells us; Westerners prefer the standard issue. So, of course, we order the deluxe version as well, just to see what we're missing.
I'm thinking it's going to be even darker and more mysterious, but on the contrary, the deluxe Peking hot and sour soup turns out to be a clear broth with nothing but chicken chunks in it. There is indeed a strong hot and sour flavor, but the lemongrass and chiles have been strained out. The waitress was right, I liked the non-deluxe better. I'm afraid I fit the Westerner cliché perfectly.
But if you're doomed to eat clichéd Chinese lunch specials, it might as well be here at Peking Cuisine. The soup, egg roll and entrée format may be Westernized, but the food is anything but. The ingredients are strictly authentic, and you don't have to ask them to make it spicy. My entrée, a huge portion of tender garlic pork, is threaded with exotic black fungi, studded with peppers and oozing hot orange chile oil. All in all, it's a pretty spectacular lunch. In fact, at $3.65, it may be the best deal on a Chinese lunch special in the whole city.
I came to Peking Cuisine because I had heard it's the favorite restaurant of Houston's Beijing expat community. And sure enough, everybody else in the place appears to be Chinese. And none of them, as far as I can tell, is eating a lunch special. Instead, they're spinning lazy Susans loaded with dishes I can't begin to identify. On the way out, I stop by one table and start quizzing the patrons about what they're eating. They're happy to name each dish: "That's la pi, that's fu qi fei pian, and that's long-cooked beef," they explain as I point to one dish after another. Alas, the names alone do me little good.
The second time I visit Peking Cuisine I bring my brother and his business associate. Like me, my brother will eat virtually anything, but his colleague is not so adventurous. He makes the mistake of expressing his distaste for squid, squab and other icky foodstuffs within earshot of the waitress, who immediately signs him up for that cornstarch- and sweet sauce-covered classic, General Tso's chicken. My brother orders beef and scallions, which turns out to be exceedingly bland. They probably made it that way especially for us. I order moo shu pork and "Chinese tortillas." The pork-and-egg scramble is by far the tastiest dish on the table, and it comes with an excellent inky black hoisin sauce to spread on the pancakes. But all in all, the dinner is fairly lackluster, thanks to our poor job of ordering.
I spend most of the meal craning my neck and observing the fabulous-looking stuff on everybody else's tables. Chinese cooking instructor Dorothy Huang told me that Peking Cuisine is the best place in Houston to go for Peking duck. Sure, Golden Duck restaurant on Bellaire makes duck that is as good or better (see "Peking Order," August 29), but Beijing expats prefer this place because when you order Peking duck for a large party, you want to eat other dishes, too. And this is by far the best place in the city for Peking-style Chinese food. Or so she tells me. Personally, I can't seem to figure out how to order any of it.
Calvin Trillin once wrote a story called "Divining the Mysteries of the East," in which he recruited James D. McCawley, a professor of linguistics from the University of Chicago, to go with him to Chinese restaurants. Trillin suspected that the food he was being served and the food the Chinese people around him were eating were entirely different. So he got the professor to translate the signs on the wall and teach him how to read a few Chinese characters. Inspired by this story, which I read early on in my food-writing career, I've been dragging natives to ethnic restaurants ever since. And it looked like it was time to resort to this tried-and-true tactic here. It was becoming obvious that without a savvy Beijingian in tow, the tantalizing secrets of Peking Cuisine were never going to be revealed to me.
Qiuyue Wang's eyes light up as she reads the dinner menu. Then she looks around the table a little sheepishly. "What's the matter?" I want to know. She giggles as she points to a menu item called stewed pork intestines.
"This is one of my favorites," she says. "But I don't think you will like it. It's kind of smelly." I assure her that we'll order it no matter what it smells like. And I encourage her to order a whole bunch of other stuff that people in Beijing eat.
The stewed pork intestine is cut up into pieces that resemble tortellini floating in a promising-looking orange sauce. The round chunks are soft and rubbery as you chew them, but they yield nicely to a steady application of the molars. They don't smell bad at all -- which is unfortunate, as far as Qiuyue is concerned.
"I like them better when they are smellier," she says. We also try the pickled tuber soup, which tastes like pork broth with pickles but is not nearly as exciting as the hot and sour soup. Fu qi fei pian turns out to be a delectable cold dish made of pieces of beef heart, beef stomach and beef meat tossed in hot chile oil. The texture of the offal is much softer than you might imagine. I'm quite taken with the stuff, but our friend Debra won't touch it.
Debra Bailey and Darayus Kolah are friends of Qiuyue's who have given her a lift out here to Peking Cuisine. Debra is a Southern girl, and Darayus is a native of India. Like me, Darayus is fairly fond of the stewed pig's intestines and the mélange of cold beef parts. While Debra isn't going for the cold salad, she bravely puts a piece of the stewed pork intestine in her mouth and gives it a few tentative chomps. Then she spits it politely into a napkin.
"Sorry," says Debra. "I can't get past the texture." But she turns out to be a huge fan of wiggly la pi, an appetizer I find utterly without merit. La pi is made from the same paste as bean threads, Qiuyue tells us. It's formed into a layer about a half-inch thick and then cut into long rectangular shapes that look like giant noodles. The slippery, transparent bean stuff is seasoned with soy, rice wine vinegar, chiles and cilantro, and while the sauce tastes fine, the tooth-clingingly chewy la pi tastes like absolutely nothing. "It kind of reminds me of Gummi Bears," says Debra.
The one appetizer we all love is called Peking meat pie. It's a couple of thin, flaky pancakes sandwiched together with a spicy pork paste filling inside. "Back home we call it Peking pizza," our food expert says. And there are quite a few "Peking pizzerias" where young people go to eat meat pies and hang out, Qiuyue tells us.
A Beijing native studying at Rice University, Qiuyue has been in Houston a little more than three months now. So far, her favorite local restaurants are a couple of Taiwanese places over in Bellaire Chinatown, but Peking Cuisine is making quite an impression on her.
Their Peking noodles are perfect, she says. The yellowish wheat noodles -- a little thicker than spaghetti -- come with a pile of cucumber slivers and other vegetables on top and a dark black sweet pork sauce on the side. Qiuyue mixes the whole thing up for us and takes a big serving. "These are really typical," she says. "I will be coming back here for these." While I'm delighted to have introduced Qiuyue to a place that serves her home food, I can't get excited about the noodles. They seem plain compared to the Vietnamese noodle dishes I'm used to.
An entrée called Sichuan fish is a big disappointment for all of us. "This dish is supposed to be served completely covered with whole peppers," says Qiuyue. "And then the waiter spoons them off the top and serves the fish." Here, big fish chunks are served in a chile sauce with lots of crushed peppers sprinkled on top. The peppers make the dish hot and bitter, but otherwise it's curiously lacking in flavor.
This is one of the most interesting meals I've eaten in a long time. Which brings to mind an old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Unless you happen to be visiting from Beijing, I can't really recommend anything we ate besides the Peking meat pies and the innocuous noodles. I know there must be a balance between the General Tso's chicken and the stewed pork intestine at Peking Cuisine. But until I hit upon it, I highly recommend the good old lunch special with the non-deluxe hot and sour soup and the homemade egg roll. It's not very adventurous, I'll admit. But sometimes when a Chinese waitperson says "not for you," you just have to accept that he's right.
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