By Ray Downs
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By RFT Staff
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There was, however, the proverbial exception that proves the rule, Wang allowed. It's a tiny place, he explained, and you won't find many English speakers there. You know the old Anglo axiom: that you can judge the quality of a Chinese restaurant by the number of Chinese patrons? Wang said the clientele at this place consisted entirely of expats, Chinese-Americans like him and a smattering of others who speak the language.
He invited me to join him there for dinner.
A week later I found myself sitting at a table in a tiny storefront on busy Olive Boulevard that one would be hard pressed to call a restaurant. It looked more like a storeroom. The three tables (counting one rickety card table) accommodated ten seats and vied for space with a glass-fronted cooler of the sort you see in butcher shops. Behind the cooler was another table, upon which sat two rice cookers. One held white rice, the other a gruel called congee. Cardboard boxes were piled in a corner. Though we'd come in through the front door, I came to learn that many patrons enter the restaurant through the back door, which opens onto an alley, and pass through the kitchen on their way to the dining room in front.
Wang made himself at home. He walked behind the counter and grabbed a canned beverage from the cooler, the bottom shelf of which was stocked with, among other drinks, Hello Boss presweetened coffee, Mr. Coco coconut milk, chrysanthemum tea and sweetened soy milk, as well as Coca-Cola and Vess sodas. Two upper shelves held cold salads. Signs taped to the glass were in Chinese script with bare-bones English subtitles: cuttlefish, pig ear, duck wings, intestine, spicy-and-sour chicken feet. The chicken feet, which Lei insisted I sample one night after dinner, were pickled in a spicy marinade of chile and vinegar and as chewy as rubber bands.
Wang had called ahead to let the chef know he was coming. This was less for my benefit than it was to take into account Meng Lei's repertoire, much of which requires advance warning. For the most part, Lei decides what he'll serve based on what looks best each day while grocery shopping. If you call ahead and say you're hankering for crab (a Chiu Chow specialty), Lei will buy crabs. They are likely to be steamed with jumbo slices of ginger and brought to your table piled high on a platter with Chinese celery and scallions, swimming in a thick sauce conjured from the fatty yellow juices of the shellfish.
Even if you don't ask for a special ingredient, at least half the menu requires a few hours' notice. You must call ahead for Chrysanthemum with Guava Ball, Steamed Plum with Abalone, Melon Stewed Fresh Pig Stomach, and Steamed Lemon Mullet. Doubtless with this in mind, a lot of regulars opt simply to tell Lei how many dishes they want him to prepare, rather than which kind.
That first night Lei soon appeared, carrying a plate of prettily arranged cold meats drenched in lo soi, the deep red stock central to Chiu Chow cuisine. Wang loosely interpreted the name of this dish as "cold cuts," conceding that the phrase didn't capture the essence of what lay before us.
In the middle of the platter was a clump of glassy strips that might have been mistaken for cooked cabbage but were actually pickled jellyfish with small chunks of duck meat mixed in. The texture of the jellyfish was simultaneously chewy and soft, not entirely unlike blanched cabbage, with just enough tension to snap between the teeth. Partitioned around the jellyfish centerpiece as if on a multi-topped pizza were six different preparations of meats: chunks of cold roast duck with a crisp soy glaze and thinly sliced breast meat; chilled squid in big, pale slabs that had taken on the flavor of the earthy, sweet lo soi; beef tongue, gamy and dense; morsels that looked like clams but were in fact duck tongues; and slices of an odd-looking translucent meat that we later learned was beef tendon. Attempting to impart the origin of the substance through sign language, Lei pointed to the inside of his forearm.
In Chiu Chow cooking, and in many parts of China, meals often kick off with a dish like this, Lei told us. "Next is the seafood," he said, then added, "Shark-fin soup is a very famous dish from my province, but it's very expensive here and I have to preorder it, and it's not of good quality. If you order in advance, I will cook it for you. Whatever they have at the markets, I can make into a dish. Show me a picture of it and I can make it for you." (Chiu Chow is also known for the delicacy known as bird's nest soup, which features as its centerpiece the nest of a certain species of Asian swift.)
Though it might not occur to Americans raised on Chinese restaurant food, cooking styles in China vary geographically, in much the same way soul food differs from, say, Tex Mex, or the way a Maine lobster shack is nothing like a Memphis barbecue shack.