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.
SWEET AND SOUR PORK:
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.
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.