Comic Jackie Mason once asked: "Jewish civilization is 6,000 years old, and Chinese civilization is 4,000 years old. So where did Jews eat on Sunday night for 2,000 years?" It's a strange crossover, this Jewish love of Chinese cuisine. Does it stem from shared tastes for chicken soup, tea and dishes seasoned with garlic, or is it that Cantonese recipes generally eschew aerosol cheeses? Mimi Sheraton, one-time food writer for The New York Times, once speculated that one of the lost tribes of Israel read the map wrong and ended up in China, bringing back a love for lo mein in the process.
But Jews share this love with most of the rest of America. Though Americans of Chinese descent make up less than 1 percent of the population, roughly a third of the nation's ethnic restaurants are Chinese. Yet it's no secret that much of the stuff they serve isn't really Chinese.
"Chinese" food first stalked American appetites around the time of the San Francisco Gold Rush when, according to the Smithsonian Institution, the first recorded Chinese restaurant on U.S. territory opened in 1849. It was called Macao and Woosung and was founded by Norman Asing, who developed what may have been the first all-you-can-eat buffet, charging a buck for the splurge. His innovation spawned a flurry of "chow chows," and they blessed America with an enduring legacy: chop suey. Though its origination is as murky as the brown sauce slathering it, chop suey (which in Chinese means "sundry scraps") is said to have emerged when a San Francisco cook flung together a collage of leftover meat scraps and vegetables to sooth a gaggle of drunken gold miners.
Other strictly American inventions include egg foo young and the fortune cookie, which was invented in San Francisco or Los Angeles, depending on whom you believe. The Smithsonian says the cookie was invented in 1916 by David Jung, a Los Angeles noodle manufacturer who is said to have borrowed the idea from a practice among Chinese rebels during the Mongol occupations of exchanging covert messages inside moon-shaped buns.
Other evidence suggests the cookie had its genesis in San Francisco in 1907 when Makoto Hagiwara, a caretaker at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, came up with the idea of putting little thank-you notes inside cookies after he was sacked from his position by a racist mayor and reinstated following a public outcry. In 1983, the San Francisco Court of Historical Review, a group of lawyers and judges who set aside rules and legal procedure to settle seething historical questions, ruled that the cookie had its genesis in San Francisco. (The court also ruled that the martini was invented in San Francisco and that the Grinch really didn't steal Christmas--stiff competition for the rulings coming out of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
They have lots of fortune cookies at Valentino's Chinese Restaurant in Oak Cliff, pliable things with the consistency of sponge rubber if sponge rubber could be made to mime stale saltines. Valentino's also has chop suey. Ours had shrimp. Frozen, sure, but it was firm and not overcooked into fortune-cookie texture. It also had fresh and crisp pea pods, bean sprouts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrot slices, broccoli, bell peppers and slices of celery.
It's no surprise that Valentino's has egg foo young. Two ugly patties--edges singed, crisp and bitter--are topped with a natty toupee of diced scallions. Inside is a Gordian knot of onions ensnaring pieces of pork stained unnatural shades of red. The pork is hard and brittle, breaking into sections with the slightest fork pressure, and it tastes old.
Americanized Chinese food seems to embrace the highway flagman school of cuisine, hence the pork rimmed in road-flare red and the sweet and sour chicken in a sauce the orange hue of a safety flag. (The Chinese version of sweet and sour is lighter and subtler and dispenses with the radioactive food coloring.) The orange food at Valentino's isn't a cautionary tale, though. It's tasty with crispy batter and juicy breast meat.
That this restaurant is named Valentino's is a wink at the rampant culinary intermarriage that goes by the name of global fusion or some other such moniker. "We wanted to make a name that stuck out," says owner Mike Wong, who has operated Valentino's for some three years. Sheldon's would have worked, too.
Valentino's serves no Italian food, not even pizza rolls. But it does serve chicken-fried steak, hamburgers, onion rings and salads.
We didn't sample the ham or chef salads, but we did try the pork in garlic sauce, which had a star next to its menu entry indicating it was "hot & spicy." We didn't taste much heat or spice. We didn't taste much garlic either. What we did taste was lots of overcooked onion, shriveled pea pods and tough pieces of gristly pork.
Szechwan beef was nearly blistering, which means those stars can be capricious. Beef was sparse, little tiny strips here and there instead of healthy ribbons.
Moo goo gai pan is blond, jettisoning the road-cone tones. Curled and rippled slices of pearly white chicken meat bathe in a whitish sauce with broccoli, carrot slices, bok choy and bamboo shoots. Mushrooms, too. And I think I saw a scallion sliver or two in there. The sauce is dull, though, tasting like condensed canned chicken soup before you add water to get more mileage out of it.
Hot sour soup was dull, too, showing neither prick nor pucker. It did have one odd characteristic: smooth and shiny little chicken pieces that looked like cheese curds.
It's difficult to figure out the ethnic heritage of chicken wings. My guess is Arkansas. Valentino's deep-fried chicken wings, a combination of drumettes and whole wings, are crisp, relatively greaseless and deliver a pronounced taste of ginger on the finish. But cho cho beef, strips of beef with an undisclosed pretreatment and impaled on wooden skewers, was barely edible--so tough and durable the strips would have made swell wingtip tongues.
Valentino's is a sparse and small roadside dining room with a drive-through window, a takeout window with backlit color transparencies of the cuisine and a dining room with white walls, blond paneling and utilitarian diner furniture. It's endearing in a way. A fat black cricket scurried across the middle of the floor on one visit.
Our server was delightful and nurturing, frequently checking on us, clearing plates and offering clean dishes when sharing littered our table with plates.
On our second visit, we brought wine, chagrined by the weak tea offered on the previous visit. Our server deposited a stack of tall brown plastic tumblers on the table, only to return excitedly a few minutes later to offer us better wine glasses: tall red plastic tumblers embossed with the Coca-Cola logo. Beverage tools were delivered in a clear plastic bag: two bottle openers with handles shaped like champagne bottles and a corkscrew. I twisted the plastic handle off the corkscrew on the first try. So a manager took our bottle back into the kitchen, where presumably the pliers and vice grips are kept. A few minutes later, a burly kitchen hand returned with the cork, the metal worm still embedded, resting on the bottle lip. We poured our wine, threw in a few cubes and toasted the San Francisco Court of Historical Review, which is no doubt set to decide which Chinese city invented matzo balls.
526 E. Jefferson Blvd., 214-942-4003. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday & Sunday. $
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