The Chopstick Senator Sent Me
The shrimp in mayonnaise sauce at Chinese American Restaurant on Bissonnet were enormous. The succulent white shrimp coated with thin mayonnaise sauce looked like clouds floating on a sea of chopped iceberg. They were topped with walnuts that had been dipped in honey and roasted. I speared a shrimp and some of the lettuce with my fork and stuck it in my mouth. It tasted like the best shrimp poor boy I have ever eaten -- only without the bread.
"Fried chicken and soy sauce" was a whole fried chicken cut into chunks with a topping of shaved scallions and sliced serranos served with a simple soy sauce. The chicken skin was so crispy and the chicken so greaseless, my dining companion guessed it had been lightly steamed before it was fried.
The lotus root slices that came with our other entrée had paisley-shaped holes evenly spaced around the centers. They looked like Swiss cheese slices designed by Salvador Dalí. The dish was called "lotus wood with sliced pork" on the handwritten special menu, and we ordered it just to see what it was. The lotus root had the same sort of crunchy texture and neutral taste as water chestnuts. It took on the flavor of the other ingredients in the dish, which included mushrooms, black fungus, snow peas and pork in brown sauce.
On a previous occasion, I sampled the chopped chicken in lettuce nests, a huge pile of minced chicken cooked with mushrooms, water chestnuts and other savory items over crispy cellophane noodles, served with several heads worth of iceberg cups to make lettuce tacos. As an appetizer, it was enough for six people.
None of these brilliantly prepared, authentic Cantonese dishes appear on the regular menu of Chinese American Restaurant. Take a look at that lengthy document in its large red vinyl folder, and you will find such familiar Chinese-Americanisms as crab puffs, chop suey and sweet and sour chicken.
It's been decades since Calvin Trillin took a Chinese professor to a restaurant in New York's Chinatown to decipher all the specials on the handwritten banners on the walls, and still the Chinese tradition of the restaurant within a restaurant continues. And still we non-Chinese speakers are convinced we are missing something.
How many times have you pointed to an intriguing-looking dish on someone else's table at a Chinese restaurant, only to have the waiter reply, "Not for you!"? The sad thing is, the waiter is usually right. They have fried intestines and tripe with pickled vegetables at Chinese American on Bissonnet, and you probably wouldn't really want any. But if you are determined enough, you can eat some great Cantonese food here.
I never would have set foot in the Chinese American Restaurant, which is located in a strip center that also houses an excellent Mexican carnicería and an African-American fashion store, if it hadn't been for an e-mail from a food writer friend of mine. Francis Lam, whose e-mail address begins with "chopsticksenator," grew up second-generation Chinese-American in suburban New Jersey. His parents moved to Sugar Land when they retired around ten years ago. While Francis was in town for the holidays, his parents took him to Chinese American Restaurant. He had this to say about the place:
"The food I had at Chinese American I recognized as homestyle -- unaffected, inelegant, but tasty and satisfying -- comfort food, if you will. I never saw the menu; maybe they do a sizable 'takeout egg roll' kind of business. The food we ordered was all verbal, through conversation with the server. A lot of Chinese restaurants my parents take me to do a lot of off-the-menu business. Not that they necessarily have secret specials, but there is a pretty standard battery of dishes that most cooks know how to make. The best of these dishes -- the steamed minced pork with dried fish and the eggs with salty and sour pickled greens -- showed an intensity of flavor and juiciness that made them particularly excellent for scarfing down with bowls and bowls of rice."
Seduced by Francis's description, I made my first visit to Chinese American. As he led me to expect, it was an utterly ordinary restaurant. The interior had a red brick floor, a dirty white acoustical tile ceiling, paneling in various mismatched shades and wooden armchairs with red vinyl seats and backs. The tables were covered with clear plastic sheets, which seemed odd since the tablecloths underneath the protective plastic were white shiny plastic.
I was getting my food to go, so I walked to the bar at the front of the restaurant, where the waiter handed me the big red menu. I didn't see the dishes Francis described, so I asked the waiter for "steamed minced pork." He said they didn't have any. Then I told him that a Chinese friend of mine had ordered it here, so I knew they had it.
This caused him to produce a handwritten menu of special dishes written in Cantonese and English. There were no other copies of this document and the original piece of paper was getting pretty worn. But I found a dish called "ground steamed pork with salted fish" on the list and guessed this was the one Francis had raved about. I also got the minced chicken and lettuce nests off the special menu and then ordered some familiar favorites like orange beef and garlic pork from the regular menu.
Back home, I compared the minced chicken on lettuce tacos and the tangy orange beef with Mak Chin's versions of the same dishes ["Two Faces of Mak Chin's," by Robb Walsh, February 1]. You get more than twice as much of each dish for the money at Chinese American. The minced chicken at Chinese American had a lot more ingredients, which stretched the chicken, but also provided a lot of interesting flavors and textures. And while the orange beef at Chinese American lacked the refreshing mandarin sections you get at Mak Chin, I liked the well-done meat much better.
We all tried to like the steamed ground pork and salted fish, which looked like an enormous breakfast sausage patty. But it had a strong fermented fish aftertaste that wasn't saying "comfort food" to me. No doubt plenty of people find my family's comfort food favorite, sauerkraut and pig parts, equally uncomforting.
A lot of people ask me to recommend a Chinese restaurant in Houston. And most of them balk when I say Fung's Kitchen because they're thinking of something cheaper. Like Tex-Mex joints, American Chinese restaurants got popular because of their low prices. And while I love upscale Chinese restaurants, I understand the need for cheap neighborhood Chinese restaurants, too. In that regard, Chinese American is hard to beat.
On my second visit, I succumbed to the allure of their unbelievably cheap lunch specials. The bargains start at $2.65 for six fried chicken wing pieces. I got extravagant and shelled out $3.45 for the pork with garlic sauce. All of the lunch specials come with an egg roll, fried or steamed rice and an egg-drop or hot-and-sour soup (it's 50 cents extra for wonton soup). Iced tea is 85 cents.
As you might expect, the lunch specials are nothing to write home about. The hot-and-sour soup was nothing but broth and egg drops -- no lily buds, no black fungus, nada. The pork was cut with a lot of vegetables, and while the vegetables were excellently prepared, they didn't satisfy me. I know, I know: What do you expect for three bucks and change?
Along with a lunch special, we also ordered another item off the handwritten Cantonese menu called salted eggplant and shrimp. It sounded good, and at first glance it looked good too. It was a big pile of golden-brown battered and fried rounds. Each contained a slice of eggplant and a whole shrimp married together under a thick blanket of batter and deep-fried. It would have been an astonishingly good dish if it hadn't been for a little excess oil.
"They didn't wait for the oil in the deep fryer to get hot enough," my tablemate concluded. It was only eleven-thirty, so I voted that we forgive them this mistake. But my grease-averse friend saw the need to blot each eggplant round vigorously, which created such a mess of fat-saturated napkins on the table, you'd think we had been engaged in liposuction surgery rather than lunch.
It wasn't until my final visit to Chinese American that I finally lucked into the good stuff. The mayonnaise shrimp and the fried chicken on the handwritten Cantonese menu were both excellent and relatively cheap.
I was also determined to get some of the salty, sweet and sour pickled vegetables Francis raved about, so I ordered sliced beef with pickled vegetables from the big red menu. It turned out to be a satisfying combination of exotic-flavored pickled mustard greens with familiar-tasting Chinese stir-fried beef and soy sauce.
It's an interesting restaurant. If you are looking for chop suey or a cheap lunch special with sweet-and-sour pork, an egg roll and soup, it's there for you. And if you are Cantonese and want scrambled eggs with sweet and sour pickled vegetables, or some other homestyle comfort food, they will make that for you, too. Chinese American is as authentic as you want it to be.
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