By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The betrayals are subtle at first. A server is bewildered by limes, so after numerous delays the Corona arrives with a narrow wedge of lemon. The margaritas, with milky clouds roiling like turbid thunderheads in the icy fluid, leave powdery residue on the lips that accumulates as a tacky paste in the corners of the mouth. Faded photographic murals of Cancun beachscapes and groups of mariachi musicians consume tracts of green, gold and red wall not covered by sombreros. Mariachi music pulses through cheap speakers bolted in the ceiling corners.
At first glance, the menu speaks a typical Tex-Mex dialect: enchiladas, burritos, refried beans, rice, fajitas and hard or soft tacos in shells of flour or corn. Anthony Kohler, my adopted translator and guide, looks up from the menu and smiles. Born and raised in Frankfurt, Germany, before settling in Michigan, Kohler soaks up languages with the thirst of a parched sponge. He speaks Spanish and German deftly, with scraps of French and Italian tossed in. While his stay in China has been only months, he has so successfully guzzled Mandarin he can quickly decode insults and hustles on the streets of Beijing. "I remember the first few times I tried to order beef in Chinese," he says. "The women would look at me funny, kind of startled." Niu rou (pronounced "new row") is the Chinese term for beef, its literal translation being "cow meat." But when his Mandarin was green, Kohler says he muffed the pronunciation slightly so that it came off as nu rou. Nu is roughly pronounced "noor" without the "r." Nu is the Chinese word for woman.
We're at Niña Mexican Restaurant, just a few blocks from Qing Hua University in Beijing. It might seem strange to dine on Mexican food in the birthplace of Peking duck and the Little Red Book. Yet it's no odder than eating kung pao chicken or boiled pork and leek dumplings in a Plano strip mall, except that Chinese restaurants have pebbled the Dallas-Fort Worth landscape much longer and in far greater numbers than Mexican restaurants have endured in Beijing. That being the case, why can't Dallas do good Chinese or at least respectable authentic Chinese? To unravel the riddle, I traveled to China to chew its food, down its drinks and be teased by its quirky bustle. This was done not through the typical junket conga of staged tastings, orchestrated dinners and demonstrations designed to bestir the kitchen voyeurism rampant among America's "foodies." It was done through random meals in disheveled diners, hidden speakeasy-esque parlors, tiny noodle houses, off-beat hotel banquet rooms, a dining rail car and private homes. I sampled thick wheat buns and delicious chicken gizzards and tiny sparrows on skewers from street vendors and snacked on dried hawthorn fruit and sweet sausage sticks in bomb shelter ruins not far from the once-jittery Sino-Mongolian border, near where my sister Lynn teaches English to Chinese students at the Ningxia Institute of Science and Technology in Dawukou.
At Niña, a basket of stale chips arrives with a dull, mushy salsa pimpled with faded, browning tomatoes. We chew on steak fajitas of desiccated, leathery beef and peppers and onions cooked into fettuccine flaccidity. We munch dry, deflated enchiladas and burritos topped with cool, hardened melted cheese and butted against caulky blobs of refried beans and flattened pillows of furry rice. One of our companions, a young Wisconsin native who teaches English to Chinese elementary students, says she heard Niña is owned by a Russian. I can't confirm this, but the menu seems to corroborate it. The prix fixe option has four courses: Caesar salad, beef goulash with bread, spaghetti with black pepper, Sprite and ice cream (with a choice of nine flavors). Scattered among the Tex-Mex dishes lurk other oddities: beef brisket and noodle soup, ham and cheese sandwiches, popcorn, peanuts, Rice Krispies treats, and borscht. Has a Chinese menu in Dallas ever been so compromised?
"Lots of Chinese restaurants, more or less, have a Western influence," says April Kao, who owns Royal China at Preston Royal Center with her husband, Kai-Chi "George" Kao. Founded in 1974 by Kai-Chi's father, Shu-Chang "Buck" Kao, a former Taiwanese diplomat, Royal China took shape in the remains of the Safari Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant with East Indian influences. Like many Chinese restaurants in Dallas, Royal China is a hybrid, with authentic Chinese dishes blunted or obliterated--sometimes successfully, at other times abysmally--with flavors and textures designed to appeal to its largely Anglo-American audience: lettuce wraps, chicken wings, low-carb Buddhist delight.
"There are not enough Chinese people in Dallas," says Mike Chen, owner of Kirin Court restaurant in Richardson and Steel and Standard in Dallas. "If you want the business to be profitable, you've got to go reach the native people...Americans. Most Chinese food in Dallas is not that good; it's not authentic."
Chinese cuisine embraces four major styles, from the hearty foods of the north (Mandarin or Beijing), to the quickly cooked and lightly seasoned foods of the south (Cantonese), to the salt-preserved meats and vegetables of the east (Shanghai), to the aggressive spice and pungency of the west (Szechuan). Americanized Chinese cuisine generally has a heavier emphasis on meats rather than the rice, noodles and vegetables forming the bulk of Chinese meals. Plus, these meats are more lightly cooked in China, especially in the south of the country. "It's cooked too much [in America], especially chicken," says Mickey Luu, who founded Arc-en-Ciel in Garland in 1986. "Sometimes the fried chicken, we call it rose chicken. Americans don't want to see the blood."
True Chinese sauces are thinner, less obtrusive. Sauces smothering Chinese food in the States tend to be a thick, syrupy gruel--variations on a basic formula of soy, cornstarch and oil. Reasons are twofold: First, until recently, it was impossible to obtain authentic Chinese ingredients other than soy sauce; second, the weight appealed to American bellies conditioned to the aggressive ballast common in American foods.
Other differences: In China, while soy sauce is used in cooking, it is rarely supplied as a table condiment. Vinegar is the condiment of choice, along with pepper sauce. "Vinegar is good for you. We don't like to use soy," says Hui Chuan, a native of Taiwan and creator of Hui Chuan Sushi, Sake & Tapas and Parrilla Mexicana in Fort Worth. "If you drink one shot of vinegar before you go to a party, you're not going to get drunk; you're not going to have a hangover." Chuan adds that while vegetables in China are stir-fried at high temperatures in a wok, in the States they're boiled before they're tossed into the wok to save time. Yet even more than time and weight considerations, much authentic Chinese cuisine would be repulsive to most American sensibilities.
"Chicken feet, pig's ears...Most American people don't want to see it. They don't want to hear it," says Joe Chow, who founded May Dragon in Addison in 1985 and is currently mayor of that town. But you can find these delicacies if you dig. In Richardson, I dined on spicy beef tripe in plastic tubs at Jeng Chi Restaurant & Bakery, pig's ears in chili sauce and slices of marinated pig's tongue at Mandarin Café, duck's feet with bok choy in a thick, sweetish brown sauce at Maxim's and marinated pig intestine and pickled jellyfish at Joy Luck BBQ in Plano. At Cathy's Wok & Grill in North Dallas and Plano, the heavy chicken and vegetable menu is supplemented by authentic Chinese dishes, such as sea cucumber, silky chicken (small chickens from East Asia covered in fur-like feathers, with black skin and bones) and dumplings heavily infused with pork gelatin. Authentic Chinese dishes are available by special request only.
"We love sea cucumber, and Western people just cannot stand the sight of it," says Catherine Liu, who founded the original Cathy's on Coit Road in 1985. "I don't see [Chinese food in Dallas] getting authentic. The Chinese food, the authentic food, doesn't sell. You don't have enough customers to keep your business going. It's not Los Angeles or New York."
--from a China Daily editorial titled "Spitting Is Mad in a Civilized Society," February 24, 2006
Beijing is a gritty city, one that allures while it exasperates. The city's wide thoroughfares are a nasty hive of Audis, Volkswagens, Buicks and Hyundais with drivers willfully oblivious--even hostile--to pedestrians, bicycles and especially traffic signals. Buildings blink in neon near craggy clay-tiled sidewalks strewn with crushed cigarette butts and other litter. Smog stubbornly drapes over a skyline infested with cranes.
Culinary culture in Beijing spans some 5,000 years. The Mandarin cuisine spawned two distinct strains: the imperial cuisine of the royal court featuring Peking duck, mu shu pork, phoenix in the nest and lotus prawns; and the home-style grub of its subjects who savored cabbage, wheat pancakes and baozi--buns stuffed with meat and vegetable minces.
Beijing largely assumed its role as the hallowed nucleus of Chinese imperial power in 1409, when the Yung-lo emperor of the Ming dynasty began construction of the Forbidden City, a grand palatial expanse so named because access to its imperial halls, plazas and gardens was barred to all but the imperial family and dynastic officials. The Forbidden City is an 8,706-room compound sprawling over 861,000 square yards, almost double the size of Vatican City. A stream of 9,000 concubines and eunuchs coursed through the palace's side corridors.
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.
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.
The kitchen at Kirin Court is bright and spacious, almost clinical in its intense fluorescent cast. It smells of sesame, garlic and a moist fleshy musk clouded with ginger. Bins are heaped with bright green spinach. A half-dozen denuded, shriveled ducks dangle from chains in a back corner. Along one wall, a row of gas nozzles spits fierce streams of blue flame. These are the wok burners, and they flare with such ferocity the stainless steel back-splash panels must be constantly doused with water to keep them from buckling under the intense heat.
A plate carpeted in lettuce shreds and parsley snips rests on a prep table. In the center of the plate is an elephant--with detailed skin wrinkles, hoof contours and eyelid creases--carved out of taro, a tropical Asian tuber.
Chen offers an abridged tasting of his upcoming meal: creamy yin and yang soup with the classic symbol perfectly rendered in two soups--deep green puréed spinach and finely minced crab--commingled in the same bowl; slightly rubbery, pliant fish lips culled from big head, or jiangtuan, fish; and coils of chewy turkey intestines with pickled vegetables in black bean sauce.
Duck tongues are heaped haphazardly into the center of a plate ringed by an orange chain of meticulously carved carrot links. The tawny, slightly rippled tongues are boiled and then chilled overnight in a sweet soy marinade. They're chewy, tender and slightly sweet, with the meat fraying into strands until your teeth strike a blade bone in the center of the tongue.
A hash of shark fin with bits of dried scallop, scrambled egg and bean sprouts billows a fierce bouquet, like the salted minnows I used for bait as a kid. It tastes better than it smells, its potent seashore musk blunted by the egg. Chen says it's a hedge against cancer.
As we taste, Chen describes other exotic Chinese delicacies I sense he wishes he could serve: duck brains, live baby mice wrapped in buns and the mythical mother of all Asian culinary exotica, live monkey brains.
Chef Young says his father partook of the delicacy decades ago in Singapore. He says his father described how diners can feel the table vibrate as the animal struggles, kicking and flopping against the table legs.
"They think eating monkey brains makes you more smart," says Catherine Liu of Cathy's Wok & Grill. "Chinese are very funny people."
Pinning down the veracity of this tale is difficult. The people I interviewed, both here and in China, offer nebulous second- and third-hand accounts--the markings of urban legend. In an August 2002 article in The Japan Times, Mark Schreiber writes that after he queried scores of Asian military men, businessmen, chefs and government employees, he found none that had either participated in or witnessed the ritual. He pegs the legend, possibly, to an unsourced 1948 tongue-in-cheek column on the feeding habits of ethnic Chinese ("They eat everything in the water but submarines").
But a November 1982 United Press International story details a Singaporean government crackdown on restaurants serving live animals after the Northern Village, a Hong Kong-style restaurant, allegedly offered tourists a $5,000 (more than $10,000 in current dollars) Manchu emperor banquet that included bear's paw, stewed anteater, sizzling geese legs--prepared by chopping off the legs of live geese as they dance on a hot plate--and live monkey's brains, the pièce de résistance.
"The consumption of 'exotic' meats is nothing new in Asia," insists Corinne Trang, author of Essentials of Asian Cuisine: Fundamentals and Favorite Recipes. "It is generally associated with improving stamina and consumed by men...Personally, I've seen bull's penis, worms, rice paddy crickets, antlers...snake bile, dog, cat, rat and armadillo, to name a very few, eaten. I've tried some of these myself. All are eaten for their believed medicinal values, though many have been banned."
I didn't eat any of these delicacies, but I did chew on bullfrog in a two-story Beijing restaurant. The monstrously huge things were displayed at the entrance among a row of large fish tanks filled with carp, flounder and teeming throngs of shrimp. A few of the carp lay dead or dying, their silvery cream bellies bloating and breaching the water surface. We ate crisp bok choy and broccoli with garlic, kung pao chicken, slender threads of pork with even thinner threads of onion and crisp green beans with ginger and peppers.
We ordered Peking duck, which was presented to the table before roasting by a chef in a surgical mask and latex gloves. The duck was astonishing: crisp skin strips, succulent flesh and some of the thickest, juiciest scallions I have ever seen. They're mingled with the meat and hoisin sauce in supple Peking doilies--pancakes closely resembling thin tortillas.
Yet the most provocative was that frog. The whole body is carved up into bite-sized chunks tossed with crisp bell peppers and onions in a sweetish red sauce. Riddled with bone shards, the meat is rubbery and virtually tasteless, save for the sauce. "In school, we were told to protect frogs," scolds Emily, a Chinese artist at our table, as I pinch hunks of frog. "They eat harmful insects."
We make our way to Dawukou from Beijing in a "hard sleeper," a Spartan railcar with open compartments of six bunks stacked three high opposite spring-loaded fold-down seats that intrude into the narrow aisles. Over the course of the 16-hour ride, we eat in the dining car on tables covered in green and white checkered tablecloths. We eat gray gristly beef in a light brown sauce littered with crisp scallions. We pluck pieces of bright green and crisp zucchini with delicious tofu cubes. We pour beer into tiny tumblers from tall, green Tsingtao bottles.
Accommodations include a toilet--a lipped depression terminating in a hole in the railcar floor with a bucket to be filled by a small faucet for flushing. It empties out directly onto the tracks, and just before the train rolls into a station the toilets are bolted shut until the train is a safe distance from the depot. The condition of the hole grows more graphic as the journey unreels.
We're whisked from the final train stop by an American English teacher to lunch at a restaurant called Family of Three Mouths in Dawukou. We order tall bottles of Xi Xia beer and are given tiny glass tumblers from which to drink it. The teacher pours a little beer in the glass, swirls it around and then dumps it into the next glass and the next, repeating it until the last glass is washed, and then the beer is dumped. "It's a Chinese custom," he says. It cleans the glasses, he adds. The value of the custom quickly becomes apparent. The floor is dotted with crushed cigarettes, crumpled napkins and twisted knots of browning vegetable debris. Clumps of garbage collect in the corners, while shallow pools of soiled water smear the floor. A huge plastic relief of Santa Claus' face hangs on the wall. "It takes them a while to de-decorate," says Anthony Kohler. We eat spinach in vinegar dusted with sesame seeds, beautiful pickled cabbage leaves, less-than-stellar pork ribs, pork with vegetables and Japanese tofu--gelatinous, spit-like stuff.
Though not as aggressively spicy as Szechuan cuisine, the food of Dawukou is closer to but more robust than the Mandarin food in Beijing. Because the Ningxia plain produces abundant wheat harvests, the primary staple is noodles. In a tiny noodle house in the city's core, diners drink the hot water "soup" left over from boiling noodles as an aperitif and chew raw garlic cloves as they scoop noodles from bowls with chopsticks. The meat staples are mutton and goat. "The mutton in Ningxia is seen as the best," says Wang Wanzhi, head of the English department at the Ningxia Institute of Science and Technology. "People say that it is because the water quality here is unique, and when the sheep eat the grass and drink the water, the digestive system can get rid of the strong smell of the mutton."
Whole sheep carcasses dangle from hooks in the open air market, carefully separated by some distance from the pig cadavers in deference to the large Muslim minority in Dawukou. Bins hold great heaps of pig's liver, lungs and intestines. Goat's heads are displayed on tables while carp and other fish flop and splash in shallow tubs fed by hoses. The pavement around the stalls streams with blood and pinkish trickles coursing around fish heads, scales and scraps of animal flesh.
As I strolled through the market, it seemed the reasons Dallas largely punts on Chinese food authenticity suddenly were irrelevant. Chinese food in Dallas will never be as explicitly authentic as it is in this secluded outpost or even in Beijing. For as restaurateur Chuan says, it takes guts to serve Americans the more traditional styles of Chinese food. Americans aren't much interested in guts.
Yet just as Americans travel more and slowly drift away from Americanized ethnic cuisines, the Chinese are increasingly more susceptible to a creeping Americanization on their tables. The McDonald's outlets in the capital city are not tourist strongholds but hives of the city's residents. After a hike in the bitter cold along a decaying section of the Great Wall through abandoned military bases in rugged northern Ningxia, Kohler and I sip hot chocolate and eat fried chicken strips in a large KFC in downtown Dawukou.
One of our last meals in Dawukou takes place in the small apartment of the parents of one of our guides, a young student of English named Luke. Smoke from a tiny coal stove seeps from the window as we enter the dimly lit kitchen where his mother and aunt rapidly stuff, fold and pinch dumplings, assembling them on a platter. In the dining room a tiny round table is sprawled with bowls of carp in thin spicy sauce, barbecued chicken, spicy noodles with vegetables, zucchini in hot pepper sauce, pork ribs, garlic stem, gelatinous pork skin, marinated cucumbers, beef and potatoes, and bright dripping tomato wedges dusted with sugar to blunt the acids. A muted television in the corner flashes a soap opera set during the Ming dynasty.
Communication is a babble of fragmented English and mangled Mandarin channeled through two and three people before the destined ears are reached, along with explicit commands to "eat, eat." It's exhausting. So we resign to express ourselves via toasts of Tsingtao in paper Dixie cups. We do this until the bottoms soak out.