28 February 2012

Peking Restaurant Review

A Restrospective Look at My Short Lived Dream of Becoming a Food Critic

July 2010
Santa Cruz, CA


Peking Restaurant feels just like home in that you don’t have the heart to tell your mother that her cooking makes you want to vomit. You’ve had a hard day and you just want a decent meal and you can tell from the way mom yells out “Dinnertime!” that she’s put a lot of her pride into her food. As you sit down, pick up the first morsel with your chopsticks and take a bite, you realize that your mom’s pride tastes like shit.

She asks you if you like the food: “Hao ma? Hao che, hao che!” You hide your grimace between your “two thumbs up” face, chin bowed down to stifle the gag reflex building behind the squishy pork fat you just bit into. “It’s very good,” you lie like the smooth James Bond you are, contemplating a 30 minute face-to-face chat with your toilet. “Thanks mom!”

Peking Restaurant captures that exact trapped-tortured feeling. The décor mimics a Guangdong tenement so firmly that you’d swear there’s mercury in your toothpaste. Tired whitewashed walls with burgundy leather shell alcove seating fill the floor; way-too-colorful paper cut-outs of tropical fish and kitschy “Confucius say…” bamboo woodcuts adorn the walls in equal measure. The entire place is pulled together by the chairs that don’t quite match the tables they’re placed at; by the Kansas-corny Mandarin love songs flooding into the dining section like poisonous gas from the A/C vents; and the comforting tackiness that comes with being able to see the crappy patchwork the owners put into the walls and the ceiling beams.

Then a small Asian mom catches you as you walk in. “Hello!” Anywhere is fine to sit, she says. She’s right behind you with two thickly laminated “what’s-‘Photoshop’?” menus. She asks, “do you speak Chinese?” and you reply in the whitest accent possible “yi dian dian. ke yi ting ye bu ke yi shuo.” You laugh. She laughs. As she walks off back to the register, she asks another patron if the asparagus he ordered was cooked right. The patron sounds like a walrus with Down syndrome and a concussion: “urgh, yuh. Juz veruh wahtuhree buh, uh, aye liked ih.” I don’t know how a fried asparagus can taste watery, but I’m not going to question his palette. Small Asian mom (“Sam” from now on) accepts the critique and continues on her way, returning to my table with a pot of hot tea. “re cha,” Sam says self-evidently. Indeed, she just set down the steaming silver kettle of tea while saying “hot tea” but unlike when one of your asshole friends smarms out “the sky is blue, Captain,” her pointing out the obvious seems unquestionably natural. This scene’s a classic: the mom sets down the tea and advises that you to drink it by telling you that it’s tea. That’s what you do with tea. You drink it. Sam even takes the extra step and pours the tea into a pair of ceramic cups; takes the orders (“hao de, hao de”) and strolls off.

When Sam returns, she brings the gift of two smartly fried parchment colored eggrolls (replete with horseradish dipping mustard and blood-red sour chili sauce), “on the house”—an odd choice of words for someone trying to converse with me in Mandarin and even odder concerning the overarching metaphor of this review. Like the tea, the eggrolls are free. And like the tea, the eggrolls taste of meat even though they have none…which is all the more perplexing because the eggroll is pretty much celery wrapped in wonton.  Dip that fucker in the glowing red chili sauce, however, and it becomes a challenge to bitch about that pungent vegetable. The chili sauce lacks the trademark sour-flavor, molar destroying spike most translucent red sauces seem to carry in Chinese restaurants and, all around, it’s more subdued for the better. Within the thin gelatin texture is a perfect salt level and a distinct pucker sweetness that hangs on your tongue from start to finish. The horseradish mustard walks the opposite end of mid-range flavors: it doesn’t register as a flavor at all. No saltiness, no sweetness. Only after a few seconds do you feel spice and bitterness and even then, the mustard seems to tease you: “I dare you to make me interesting. Make my day, punk.” And you oblige—the celery’s unique crappiness is complimented fully by the mustard’s passive-aggressive profile.

Entrée 1:

Sometimes my girlfriend embarrasses me with how white she is. At most other times, I’m thankful. White people tend to choose safe, reliable foods that most restaurants have a hard time cocking up. This is an occasion of neither one. Sweet and sour pork is a definite member of the pantheon of American Chinese cuisine—how well a restaurant can represent that god is a definite measure of how easily that restaurant can make you cream your panties. Or blow chunks all over the dining table. I can understand why a cook would over-batter pounds of low-grade pork with a cornstarch coating that more closely resembles a fried batch of eggs and talcum power. But why in Nero’s name would you cut the pork into shapes that burn the meat dry and keep the fat from frying out? Why would you even have fat in the first place? When I took a bite, it felt like I was biting into a pig’s ass after coating it in Splenda, MSG and honey. And then the pig asked me for a reach around.
About that MSG thing: Peking Restaurant advertises “No M.S.G.” on their menus but it’s like when you were a kid and mom seemed to be constantly buying your sister slightly better presents at Christmas time; or when she rents a bouncy-house for your cousin’s birthday and forgets to get you a present on yours. “No M.S.G” seems to be the equivalent of “Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t have a favorite child”: the statement itself may be true but it doesn’t preclude the possibility of you being the kid she doesn’t like.

Entrée 2:

How does a restaurant confuse the adjective “crispy” with “dry” or “chewy” or “tooth-breaking” or “meaty razorblades in your mouth”? Probably the same way the Census Bureau asserts that North Africans and Middle Easterners (their words, not mine) count as “White”. The meat tastes faintly of duck and I can tell they used a really decent one for the attempt but all the juices that make duck a unique meat, a meat as delicious as the animal is adorable, are literally burnt out in the cooking process. So badly was the duck handled that entire chunks resembled volcanic glass or blackened, unpolished marble; pieces bending at the edges of your teeth, resisting each bite like it was convinced that it was Che Guevara incarnate. The key problem was that the duck was cut and shredded prior to deep frying, burning out and exhausting everything that made the dish appetizing in writing. And it was slowly deep fried at a low temperature, ensuring that the resulting duck jerky was anything but crispy and even farther from edible.
            And in that failure, there’s a cock-tease of a lost opportunity. I’ve looked all over Santa Cruz for a duck that wasn’t cooked in some god awful faux-French or pretend-Peking way. Something with a red-brown skin that crackled and glistened and flesh that gave way after a single decisive bite. What Peking Restaurant served me instead was a vision of mediocre cooking practices that slid easily into a fundamental failure to create something that even remotely mimics food.

            Then again, Sam makes you feel like Peking Restaurant is home—you can’t bear to tell her that she’s just served you the shittiest thing you’ve ever forced yourself to eat. As she hands you double the fortune cookies she gives any other table, quietly but clearly saying “xie xie, good luck good luck,” and asks you what you thought about your meal, you think back to that head-trauma’d walrus that was sitting in the table next to you. Watery asparagus? I get it now.

27 September 2011

Fire: Pretty

September 11, 2011
Henry Cowell Redwoods SP, CA


Work's done with and we need to unwind. Comatose (link) and I head out to camp. And you know what camp means?

I am master of fire, bringer of death!
Awwww yeah.

S'mores are first, obviously.

Then dinner and booze!

Tony Roma's is there for you, man. He is.
Ribs, burned french rolls, Chinese hot and sour soup, summer sausage and Weidmer Hefeweizen in front of a 10 dollar grill bought at Walmart. We watch some Doctor Who under the stars and surrounded by the sound of wind and an oncoming rain. Honestly, camping is the highlight of my trip up north. Even though I burned the crap out of my toes by stubbing them on these ninja bastards:

Just because they protect you from mosquitoes doesn't mean they're your friend.
Ahh, then morning. Know what I love about mornings? making breakfast for a pretty girl.

Master of fire is bringer of breakfast
And do you know what breakfast has?

Oh sweet Jesus...

It's ok to drool. And it's gluten free!

Yeah. Camping's the shit.



It's Meat!

September 12, 2011
Alhambra, CA


Making the drive to LA after working at Opera San Jose (man, those were some weird times). Sun sends a sharp ray into my eye, courtesy of the over chromed trunk on the back of the SUV in front of me. No restaurant around for at least a dozen miles yet one quick flashback and I "smell" something familiar, thick, weighty.

Courtesy of Morocco's
Oh yes, it's Moroccan food time.

When I did have beef kebabs, they fought against each of my bites with tenderness. They didn't cave and melt like pot roast nor did they demand the masticating attention of a New York steak. It was more like each and every bit of the beef wanted you to take it slow so you could taste the light sting of the salt peppered on top; the generous oil, cumin and paprika laced into the very fabric of the beef; the light streaks of charred goodness on every bit.

But I'm not going to pay 19 bucks for a kebab and some rice--no, sir. And neither will you.

I lifted the following recipes from Food.com (link) and twisted Epicurious's (link) presenting a bit. It serves 5 small Asian people or 4 Asian people with healthy appetites.

Lighting is a bitch at my house

"Moroccan" Beef Kebabs
3/4 cup olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
4 teaspoons salt
1 grated lime peel
juice from 1 limes
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground paprika
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
2 pounds well-trimmed filet mignon steaks*, cut into 2 or 3-inch cubes
2 pounds chicken breast or thighs, cut into 2 or 3 inch cubes
8 12-inch-long metal skewers
1/2 an onion cut into 2x2 squares
1 green pepper cut into 2x2 squares
1 red pepper cut into 2x2 squares

*Filet mignon is actually very cheap. For us Monterey Park natives, there's a Chinese market, 168 Market (link). Price per pound goes about 5.99, provided you buy the entire damn tenderloin.

First, you'll want to pour the oil, garlic, cilantro, salt, peel, juice, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin and cinnamon and sugar into a big Ziploc freezer bag. Be sure to cut out the pulp from the lime and throw it in as well. Mix that stuff in the bag until the granules are nigh invisible.

Second, remove the silver skin off your steak; slice the steak into cubes; and toss all of them into the bag.

Third, rinse your chicken, remove the fat and what have you, cube em, toss em into the bag.

Now... you wait.


While they're marinating (and you're going to need a straight hour and a half to do this proper), it's best to prepare the fixin's. For the rice, I chose to make it a fried-rice instead of the proper boiling (again, you can go to Food.com for an excellent recipe). Making the stuff by boiling it is definitely the smarter way to go but, if you're like me and can't have enough fat in your diet, follow my instructions below.

"Moroccan" Fried Rice
4 or 5 strands of saffron
1/2 cup beef stock
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup sweet yellow corn
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pinch chili powder or ground flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground black peppercorn
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups already-made Basmati rice*
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

4 pinch salt

*Got this tip from Cook's Illustrated: you'll want day old, refrigerated rice. It dries out in the fridge and is more receptive to your efforts. If your rice isn't old, it turns out mushy during frying.

Tip: Frying rice happens quickly so prepare everything in advance (I've forgotten the French term for it, someone feel free to tell me). You'll want to put the rice in a big bowl, all the spices, salt and pepper in a pinch bowl, onions and corn in separate containers.

First, pour the beef stock into a large wok (or enormous sauce pan) and get it up to simmer. Turn off heat and toss in the saffron and let it do the magical thing saffron does for about 3 minutes. Then pour the saffron-broth mix over the rice.

Second, heat up the wok at high, drip the oil down the sides to lubricate the steel of your passion. and just as it's beginning to smoke: onions! FSHHHH! toss them around until they become a little translucent and then throw in the corn. Toss everything around a bit more.

Third, turn down the heat, Pacino, you'll need it at medium-high. Throw in the garlic and stir until you can smell the garlic cooking (10 seconds). Now toss in your spices and salt and stir like the Tasmanian devil til you can really smell the oil and spices mix. It's not very subtle.

Fourth, toss in your rice soaked in saffron and broth. Make sure all of it gets int the wok. Stir the rice with a wooden spoon and spatula to break it apart. The technique's a bit weird--you'll want to hold each tool in one hand and constantly upturn the rice inside the wok to soak up all the spices and flavorings. You'll see clumps so feel free to break them apart with your spoon. It don't hurt their feelings none. You may need a tablespoon or 2 more of oil to loosen up the rice--it will be excessive to use any more.

Fifth, once you get an even coloring, throw in 3 tablespoons of the cilantro. Stir fry for a bit more until you can smell the cilantro hiding in the spices.

Sixth, put the rice on the plates in little neat mounds, garnish with a pinch of chopped cilantro and sprinkle a dash of salt over it. Do not skip the salt sprinkle--I promise you your experience will not be the same without.


Back to the Kebabs!

Fourth, preheat your grill to ultra-hot. Should be 450 if you can get it there.

Fifth, pull out the meats from the bag and arrange them onto your skewers. You can see the above for the general idea on the order. It doesn't matter too much other than making absolute sure that you're packing that kebab TIGHT. And when I say tight, I mean it in CAPS. This has to be a sword of meaty justice, glimmering with fatty hope in the halcyon rays of days forever good and true.

Sixth, place the kebabs on the grill. Close the lid, turn down the heat to medium high and wait for 7 minutes. Turn over and wait another 7. Then a quarter, wait for 4. then another quarter, wait for 4. You'll want to watch out for the chicken, it cooks a little fast so you may want to skip on the quarter turns for them.

Seventh, place them on your plate, next to your rice and on top of a green of some kind. I chose a bed of spinach. Sprinkle with a dash of salt. I'm not fooling around with this part--DO IT.

Gotta tell ya: some of the nicest leftovers in history.

Bil hana wa ash-shifa.