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.