I remember when I first visited a Chinese restaurant in America.
It was in New Jersey, and I was 12. At the time, I hadn’t emigrated to America yet; I was merely accompanying my parents to their mission trip in America, and I was in New Jersey visiting my then pen pal, Joanna.
Joanna’s mother took me to a Chinese restaurant. It wasn’t one of those fast food places with the word “Express” in its name. It was a nice, rather opulent restaurant. I know that because the waiters had matching attires and the lighting was dark and the tables were decked out with crimson tablecloths.
I also remember being unhappy. I was in America! I wanted pretzels! I wanted burgers! I wanted lasagna! I wanted mac and cheese and chocolate chip cookies and banana splits—all those glorious food I read on my American chick lits (uh, Sweet Valley).
I didn’t want Chinese food. I thought it was boring because I could get that in Singapore. Boy, was I wrong.
The only dish familiar at that restaurant was the sweet and sour pork, and even that was barely recognizable. Where was my lovely cast-iron skillet venison? Where was my beloved curry fish head? And my most favorite sambal kangkong?
All I could taste was pork, chicken or shrimp in the same goopy, sweet, corn starch-laden sauce. Actually, I could barely taste the meat and the vegetables because the dish was 50% sauce. The only thing I liked about those mysterious fortune cookies was the fortune; I though the cracker itself was bland and pasty.
I couldn’t eat much; the food was foreign and inedible to me. Back at Joanna’s house, I had to sneak out for McChicken and McNuggets to quell my dissatisfied stomach. It was the first time I wondered if Singaporean food might be better than America’s. I could feel my Perfect American Image deflating a little.
The next morning, Joanna took me to McDonald’s again for their breakfasts. As I dug into my Deluxe Breakfast (OMG! Eggs, sausage muffin and pancakes in one!) and refilled my soda (free!!!) for the third time, America’s magical image was redeemed in my eyes.
Two years later, I moved to America for good. By then, I knew what to expect from “Chinese” food in America: not Chinese food.
I didn’t come to love it, but I did learn to enjoy it once in a while. In fact, every month or so, my family and I would eat Kung Pao shrimp and General Tsao chicken at our local Hunan Lion restaurant, and I didn’t need an extra burger to fill me up after.
As my palate expanded and I got more interested in different cuisines, I realized that even that “Chinese” food I enjoyed in Singapore was not entirely Chinese either. Curry fish head, sambal kangkong, chee cheong fun, fried youtiao cuttlefish—they were all Singaporeanized “Chinese” food, very much the way the “Chinese” food in America was Americanized.
I’m willing to bet that the Chinese cuisine has the largest amount of variations to it than any other cuisines in the world. The reasons being that 1) China itself is already humongous with numerous regional cuisines 2) the Chinese population is one-fourth that of the entire world’s population 3) wherever you go, you can always, always find at least one Chinese dude and 4) the Chinese people are shrewd business people.
I find food history incredible fascinating, especially because you can directly interact with it by touching it and tasting it. It’s a luxury you can’t get with historical artifacts or historical figures (because they are either dead or highly guarded behind thick glass).
Chinese food in America developed out of a need to feed fast, affordable food to the migrant workers in California during the mid-1800s. Basically, these laborers needed as much calories as they could get for their buck, which is why Chinese-American food was adapted into the take-out pails of greasy, sugar/carb grub today. The protein wasn’t anything too eccentric, and the sauce was basic and economical while being thick and tasty enough to cover up any expired meat stink or unsavory animal parts.
Necessity and innovation—I’ll say that’s part of America’s foundation. America’s middle-class has blossomed, but Chinese-American food is still part of America’s tradition and culture. For example, I found it funny yet appropriate that the Republican senators apparently debated about the debt ceiling over Chinese food. It was probably some kind of Hunan chicken with egg rolls.
I just hope most people do realize that the Chinese food at Panda Express and its imitators aren’t close to an accurate representation of true Chinese food. I’ll call it American food. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just different.
A while ago I won a $300 gift card to P.F. Chang’s at a giveaway hosted by Laura at Cinderella 11 pm.
If you like luxury travel and generous giveaways that doesn’t include coupons to fibrous bars, Cinderella 11 pm is the blog for you. I’m a poor student and cannot ever afford the high-end hotels Laura’s blog, but hey, I can dream. That’s really what the blog is about: at Cinderella 11 pm, you escape to be a fairytale princess…until the clock hits midnight, of course, then it’s right back into reality.
But once in a while, maybe you’ll get lucky and win one of Laura’s extravagant giveaways—like I did.
What was I going to do with a $300 gift card to a highly Americanized “Chinese” chain restaurant? Why, invite my Chinese American friends for a full-out multi-course meal, of course, the same ones with whom I had a 10-course, 5-hour long Chinese meal at Yujean Kang’s.
“It’s karma,” my foodie friend Tracy, who is half-Chinese and half-Jewish, said.
I remember us comparing Yujean Kang’s to P.F. Chang’s while dining, and Alan (the sous chef of Yujean Kang’s) saying he had never tried the food at P.F. Chang’s before, although he gets disconcerted when people compare Yujean Kang’s to P.F. Chang’s.
“You should go,” Tracy had told him. “You know, just to compare the two.”
Less than a week later, I entered Laura’s giveaway for fun and won. The universe was telling us to give P.F. Chang’s a chance, too. So we did.
It was the same group: Tracy, Marilyn, Alan and me, plus another friend of Tracy’s, Elton. I was the only Korean; all of them were Americans with Chinese blood.
P.F. Chang’s decor is nice. Really nice. Even before you step into the restaurant, you see these stern-looking ancient terracotta warriors: And of course, the lighting is dim and “romantic.” It was super dark in there, so please excuse the awful pictures that will follow.
They’ve even got a lounge area, where Tracy and the boys hung out because Marilyn and I were a few minutes late (damn traffic).
If you come back for their happy hour, you get a dim sum menu!
To make extra precaution that nobody misses the fact that it’s an Asian restaurant, P.F. Chang’s is also decked out with Oriental decors like calligraphy and Chinese paintings:
Not sure what the painting is about…Chinese concubines and scholars?
One thing was clear as we settled ourselves down: we were the only Asian customers in this Asian restaurant. Yay! We’re special!
We were probably also the only customers trying to spend as much as we can in one meal. We had about $240 to spend with $60 remaining for tip. P.F. Chang’s has an extensive menu, so between the five of us, we really didn’t think it would be a problem.
We started out with Chang’s Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps:
Wok-seared firm tofu, mushrooms, green onions, and water chestnuts served over crispy rice sticks.
Served with cool, crisp lettuce cups. And a trio of sauces:
Chili oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. With mustard and chili sauce.
The lettuce cups were pretty tasty, but a bit one-note. I can’t help it—having just dined at Yujean Kang’s, I had to compare the two, and P.F. Chang’s lettuce cup filling just lacked the complexity of Yujean Kang’s.
Or perhaps it was because it was made with tofu instead of chicken?
Alan, always the chef, took on the role of serving equal portions for all of us:
Our next started was the Seared Ahi Tuna:
Sushi grade ahi tuna, served chilled with spicy mustard vinaigrette and fresh mixed greens.
I didn’t eat the greens because I can’t stand salad with dressings. I’m also not sure how this fits into Chinese cuisine?But the tuna was good-quality; it melted cleanly in my mouth without a fishy odor, though Alan said it lacked a good sear on the edges.
Ooh. This was lovely. It’s pretty addicting, like french fries. Pop anything in a carby batter and stick it in a deep-fryer, and it’ll taste fantastic.
The only minor problem was that it was a tad too heavily-battered and greasy, so by the fifth fried bean the taste gets rather cloying.
We then moved on to the main courses. When I saw this Oolong Marinated Chilean Sea Bass on the menu, I knew I had to order it.
Line-caught, steeped in Oolong tea, broiled and served with sweet ginger soy and spinach.
This was definitely my favorite! The fish was so tender and flavorful and flaky and rich. Everybody else, however, said the oolong soy sauce was too salty. But I’m Korean and I grew up eating a lot of pungent foods, so I actually liked the intensity of the sauce.
I’m not the biggest duck fan, but this was nicely cooked with tender, juice-retaining flesh. The problem was the skin. It wasn’t as paper-thin and crackly as an authentic Cantonese duck should be, or at least the kind I’m used to.
According to Alan, the cooking and preparation technique was different; most likely, the duck wasn’t hung and dried the typical amount of time for an extra-crisp skin.
Here’s Marilyn happily assembling her duck pancake:
Just so we can do another comparison with Yujean Kang’s Chrysanthemum Lamb Loin, we ordered the Chengdu Spiced Lamb:
Richly spiced, marinated lamb, tossed with cumin, mint, tomatoes and yellow onions.
Ooh. This was nice. I really loved the depth of flavors in there: the spice from the cumin, the sweetness of the tomatoes, the fresh mint, the savory onions and the distinct tender lamb.
This was an exemplary dish that outlined the difference between an authentic Chinese dish and an Americanized one. The sauce was way too heavy and rich and sweet. And spicy vegetarian sauce? There wasn’t nothing spicy about it! It was just sweet like caramel.
Which doesn’t mean it’s bad. It was yummy, actually. Just not at all what I would call real Chinese cuisine. I would rename it: “Drenched Eggplant in Sweet Caramel.”
Since when did Chinese cuisine become Thai?
They were right about the “mild” curry powder. The curry spice was barely existent, and there was more cream than spice. Again, not a bad-tasting dish at all, but just…different from a true Chinese or Thai dish.
I did really like the individually seared tofu cubes and the fresh, vibrant vegetables in this dish. It’s a dish I would recommend to unadventurous eaters wanting to try something slightly new but not too scary.
Our last savory entree of the night as the Kung Pao Shrimp & Scallops:
Shrimp and scallops stir-fried with peanuts, chili peppers and scallions.
Elton gave a thumbs up for this dish. This is a guy who wouldn’t touch the vegetables in the vegetarian dishes, but this sweet and crispy dish won his approval.
I can see why kung pao dishes are popular. It’s fried. It’s got some kick from the chilies. It’s sweet. It’s meaty. All in one single dish.
Interesting note from Alan the chef: the chilies weren’t cooked long enough so as to tone down the spice level of the dish. An authentic kung pao dish would have deeply seared chilies so that the spicy acids break out of the chili shell and seep into the other ingredients.
A properly cooked chili shouldn’t burn your tongue. I stupidly popped two chili pods into my mouth and almost choked. Idiot. Learn from me and don’t try that.
One thing nice about P.F. Chang’s though, is that they are accommodating to all diets. They’ve got an impressive gluten-free menu, and they’ve also got brown rice options instead of the bland white rice:
After that fiery dish, we went all out on the desserts. I most anticipated the banana spring rolls, and I wasn’t disappointed:
Six warm, crispy bites of banana served with coconut-pineapple ice cream and drizzled with caramel and vanilla sauces.
It was delicious! The spring roll skin was fried to a crunchy crisp, and the banana in it was still firm yet incredibly creamy. Swirl the little package in that rich coconut-pineapple ice cream, and it’s swoon time.
I think I ate half the dish. The boys didn’t want any, because they had their manly cocktail drinks:
I forgot to ask what kind of drink it was.
Whatever it was, it was too alcohol-y for me.
And finally, a Flourless Chocolate Dome:
Decadent, rich chocolate cake served with fresh berries and raspberry sauce.
Another hit. It was so dense yet light in the mouth, like the thickest, richest chocolate mousse ever. A perfect dessert to share among friends.
So all in all, we ordered three starters, six entrees, four desserts, a couple cocktails and a few other alcoholic beverages. The damage? $161. I tipped $40, which means I still have almost a $100 left on my gift card.
Wow. We failed. Our goal of using up all the $$ in my gift card was only met by about 67%, despite a generous tip. How disappointing! I thought between us five foodies, it would be a mission possible.
But the night was still awesome, because I got to hang with wonderful company and got inspiration for my column on Chinese-American cuisine.
Well, I guess next time will be take-out. Lo mein, perhaps. $99 worth of lo mein and fried rice.
Question of the Day: Ever been to P.F. Chang’s? What is your favorite Chinese-American dish?