Chop suey. My God.
By the '80s this dish had been relegated to La Choy and Chun King dinners. You know, the ones with two cans taped together—one containing the glop to pour into a pan, the other with crunchy noodle bits.
Well, if you don't remember, consider yourself fortunate. It was a particularly suspect creation—gooey as molasses and almost as black, vegetables soaked and slimy, chunks of mysterious gray meat—barely suitable even for those of us subsisting on grad-school incomes. Yet two decades earlier, one could still see the words "Chop Suey" blazing in red and green from gaudy restaurant signposts. Indeed, going back through the 20th century, it almost seems as if neon was invented for the purpose, so many "Chinese" diners dotted the landscape. Edward Hopper captured a bit of this in a 1929 canvas, for example, and Sinclair Lewis had characters in Babbitt stop for a bite of the stir-fried hash. Few dishes could claim such celebrity.
Of course, no one was ever quite sure where the dish came from. Some blamed railroad gangs brought over from Canton in the 1860s. Others put the onus on a guy named Li Hung Chang, whose tour of the country in the late 19th century sparked America's first food fad: Americanized Chinese-looking dishes. A few trace it to peasant huts of rural China, communities so poor that immigration overseas to sweat over iron rails for 18 hours a day in a racist culture looked like a step up.
Even translations of chop suey—ranging from "mixed pieces" to "mixed leftovers"—are enough to raise one's hackles. Yet there it is, featured on the menu at Red India Bistro. And it's nothing like the sludge I remember from the waning years of the dish's heyday.
Oh, the random vegetable debris is about the same: onions, carrot, stuff that may be sprouts and such, hacked and stewed in the broth. But their chicken actually contributes more than just blank protein and texture, oozing a faint sweetness into the mix. The noodles (yes, chop suey often came with rice instead), are firm, easing into a weightless, formless consistency when saturated. It's the liquid that stands out, however—sweet, sour and spicy at the same time, as ruddy as tomato and watery thin.
You know, it might be enough to stir a revival, though it's odd this Chinese-American stuff is served by a place called Red India.
On the other hand, owner Pramod Prodduturi (also behind Masala Wok) says it fits in with the bistro's half-Indian, part Indochinese concept. Chop suey remains popular in the Chinese-style restaurants that dot the subcontinent like Tex-Mex places in Dallas. "In India, the chop suey is called 'American Chop Suey,'" he explains. "When I came here, it didn't make sense to keep the 'American' part. But these are the most popular Indochinese items."
The relatively new Addison restaurant doesn't claim purely Indian authenticity. It serves lassi, for instance, but eschews exotic salt versions of the sour yogurt drink in favor of thick and sweeter-than-usual mango. Alongside korma there are touches of Szechuan, hints of Vietnamese, some things you'd call British adaptations and such—the hallmarks of daily dining throughout India, where they blend local flavors with Chinese technique. Red India doesn't even pipe native music through the sound system.
Even if the restaurant is only somewhat Indian, though, it's still strange to see beef on the menu. It's even more disturbing to find a hair—as black and stiff as a Sikh's beard—swimming in one of my entrees. Oh, waiter! There's a hair in my korma.
Hair aside, the korma approaches the kind of stratified intrigue of flavor and texture that makes Indian cuisine so fascinating: some natural sweetness; rougher, toasted notes; pungent root vegetables; gritty spice; the smooth-natured coconut milk. The kitchen makes an attempt to bring all the flavors across the palate, although the dish's lamb, while tender, is a tad too salty.
Chicken 65—another dish with origins shrouded in mystery, even though it became popular in the 1960s—carries a suspiciously bright red haze, the color of pistachios way back when. But the meat is rather juicy and seasoning dry but subtle. (The same can't be said for the wicked hot sauce coating some of the plate's side items.)
Much of what Red Bistro turns out is in the "not bad" category. Their vegetable spring rolls lean on carrots, the dominant flavor in a mélange of more timid ingredients—which includes a shell strongly resembling pre-frozen snacks. Samosas share the appearance of early prep work and cold storage. The filling of potatoes and peas is decent enough, but it's seasoned to a prosaic "curry powder" standard.
Alongside the more pedestrian offerings are some agreeable dishes, whatever their origin. Ginger chicken, for example, presents a colorful bowl of glistening bell pepper chunks, baby corn, softened onions and generous portions of white meat. And it's aptly named, for the piercing sting of ginger covers the lot, beating down whatever ancillary spice rides behind it. Paired with nicely steamed, nutty brown rice, it's very pleasant.
"We've been doing this for some time," Prodduturi says, "so we're getting good at it."
And that's what Red India is about. It's a bistro, after all—housed in what I believe was the old Go Fish space, which is right next to the old Monica's space (now known as Café Brazil). The room hasn't changed that much, but the service is more encouraging, and much younger. Indeed, one evening presentation of my check was delayed while two servers, both students, debated that afternoon's quiz.
I was the only one in the place that particular time, apart from a gentleman who's radiator exploded in the parking lot, leaving him with nothing to do but eat and wait. My waiter on another visit claimed crowds swoop in after 7 p.m. on weeknights. I could have made off with a drawer full of silverware and some real cloth napkins. Instead, I waited...waited...waited...and finally went around the corner to wake the cook, who lolled with his head on the bar.
Oh, well. It's Red India Bistro—an inexpensive and not too bad way to sample pan-Asian-American kinda fusion served in India. You may even want to sing an old jingle on your way home.
"La Choy makes Chinese food swing, American. Ching!"Red India Bistro 4950 Belt Line Road, Addison, 972-661-8111. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday. $$