Pairing Off: General Tsao's Chicken

Forgive us if we've discussed this popular dish before--which we have. But the general does outrank Colonel Sanders and his non-spicy, unsticky, broccoli-less chicken.

Although the spelling may vary, just about every Chinese restaurant with a delivery option cooks up some form of General Tsao's. Typically it's built around fried meat, a sweet and sour "wine" sauce, vegetables and those explosive little dried chili's. Some kitchens prefer a tamer version, however--emphasizing the sugary red glop, for example, or dampening the profile by adding more broccoli.

Now how do you go about pairing to that uncertain combination?

"Typically, when you get into spicy Oriental food, you want Gewurtraminer," says Jim Larkin, owner of Crush Wine Shop. "But you can do a Riesling."

Simple enough--light, spicy whites to slice through residual fat and throw in some additional bite...but there's a catch. The sauce carries enough of a syrupy character to drown out certain wines.

"With sweetness you don't want anything too dry," warns Todd Lincicome, wine director for Al Biernat's. "The sweetness magnifies the dry aspect," he continues, turning good bottles into vintage versions of the Sahara.

So when picking up something to go along with General Tsao's, it's more important to shop defensively--protecting the wine rather than working toward the dish itself. Scott Loudder of Majestic Liqours on Oak Lawn suggests an off-dry, Alsatian-style Gewurtztraminer. It's possible to go with red, such as a fruit-forward Pinot Noir, Lincicome adds. But he prefers Riesling along the lines of Dr. Loosen L--which I picked up for $10 at Goody Goody.

The wine rises to the occasion, working alongside the sauce, kicking in some spiciness without asserting itself. It's almost as if you are working with two distinctly different, yet vaguely complementary elements, the Riesling merely smoothing out rough edges.

If uncertain about the general's Scoville-weight, Dr. Loosen is a relatively safe choice. Just don't experiment too much, Larkin says.

"Sauvignon Blanc would not be such a good thing."


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