Chop Suey Syndrome

Our restaurant critic travels to China to unravel the riddle: Why can't Dallas do Chinese?

Today, a Starbucks serves lattes from those corridors.

We make our way to the Forbidden City on a frigid February morning, coursing through the Beijing subway system after a meal of warm and sticky baozi wrapped in wax paper from a street vendor. Steam curls loop from its leavened pores and the tarry, slightly sweet nougat of pulverized pork and vegetables dribbles over our fingers.

Instead of immediately penetrating the palaces, we stop for lunch at a café with bright red pillars flanking propped-open aluminum and glass doors. Cold is repelled by clear plastic.

April Kao of Royal China, Dallas' oldest Chinese restaurant, says the city's Chinese restaurants must Americanize their food to survive.
Tom Jenkins
April Kao of Royal China, Dallas' oldest Chinese restaurant, says the city's Chinese restaurants must Americanize their food to survive.
Addison Mayor Joe Chow, owner of May Dragon, says Americans don't want to hear about pig's ears.
Tom Jenkins
Addison Mayor Joe Chow, owner of May Dragon, says Americans don't want to hear about pig's ears.

The tiny dining room is furnished in mismatched tables and chairs, the kind you would have found years ago in Café Society in Travis Walk or Deep Ellum. Instead of shabby chic, these furnishings are diseased, covered in swelling boils and splintering laminate blisters. Chair legs are mottled with open, blackened sores. An old woman, supping soup near the window, crushes her cigarette on the floor.

Our waitress is dressed in a drab green parka with a fur collar. She brings bottles of Tsingtao beer and a stack of paper cups. She doesn't pour. She returns a few minutes later with our lunch: a heap of cubed beef over wheat noodle ribbons in a light brown sauce, shaved pork and a plate of delicious wok-fried greens in a light soy and oil mesh. The gristly beef covering the noodles is cold, and the warmer noodles beneath are welded into slippery knots that unleash steam when detangled. The food is fair, especially the vegetables, which are crisp and lithely seasoned. Yet the café's ambiance detracts from the flavors. Cream walls are badly smudged. Dirty rags hang from a thin rope strung from the wall to the doorway into the kitchen. Soiled pots and pans are stacked on milk crates near the cash register. Almost as an antidote, a large poster in the dining room depicts a huge lipstick-red crab on a bed of frisée next to a pair of crystal glasses and a bottle of Hennessy cognac. We fill and refill our cups until they crinkle and sag.

Drink is important in China, especially to the men who bond over a "white wine" called baijiu, the national spirit made from sorghum mash. The fluid is clear, like vodka or gin or grain alcohol. It smells like fermented vomit.

China also has a thriving wine industry with some 100 wineries producing 434,000 tons of wine in 2005, a 25.2 percent surge over 2004, according the Xinhua News Agency, making China the world's sixth-largest winemaker. The wines I tasted were simple, insipid drinks. Yet this isn't surprising. Wine traditions in China followed a different course. "Traditional Chinese wines are scented with stuff like flower petals," says wine educator Stephen Reiss in a May 1996 article in the Rocky Mountain News. "But beyond that, there are a lot of aphrodisiac and medicinal wines and wines for sexual potency that are flavored with powdered deer, dog or sea lion penis."

The best Chinese wine I sampled was a 2001 Sounds of Nature Dry Red Wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, though the label tasting notes promised much more than the wine delivered:

It is good wine from heaven and souls. That can read our happiness and sadness. Like a bosom friend bringing us warmth. It lets cheers burst out minds. It gives us magic wings leading you to the flying dreams.

Dallas restaurateur Mike Chen doesn't drink much wine. He prefers pricey Hennessy XO cognac. Cognac is the supple lubricant of Chen's commerce, which runs the gamut from restaurants (Chen is an investor in Ferré and Cru Wine Bar) to commercial real estate to banking. He says he generally knocks off work at noon on Friday and spends the rest of the day sipping cognac with friends and associates, kneading deals and massaging partnerships. "Every time we'd go eat in Dallas, we'd see the food was average, but the service was terrible," says Chen, spooning a bowl of seafood-laced zhou, a rice porridge. "In Chinese restaurants, it's very hard to find good service."

So Chen conquered the huge second-level space at Main Street and Central Expressway in Richardson that was once Hong Kong Royal and recast it as Kirin Court. Here, he pledged to focus on authentic Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine with an emphasis on American-style service. Kirin is heavily focused on dim sum or "touch of the heart"--small dishes of dumplings, shrimp balls and chicken feet. Chen's dedication to authentic Chinese food in Dallas is risky. Eighty percent of his clientele is Chinese or Vietnamese and just 20 percent Anglo-Americans, the group he needs to woo if he is to expand.

Yet Chen, an ethnic Chinese born in Saigon who barely escaped communist Vietnam in a rickety boat on the South China Sea, shrugs off such risks. To flaunt the authenticity of Kirin Court, he plans to host an exclusive prix fixe dinner layered with some of the China's most exotic dishes: hawk eggs, duck tongues, shark's fin, bear's paw and Chinese truffles. He will serve bird's nest soup, a broth steeping a lime-sized nest of the cave-dwelling swiftlet, which the birds build out of thick, glutinous spit. The nests cost $500 per ounce, Chen says. Dinner check: $1,000 per head.

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