May whoever invented the white cardboard carry-out container spend eternity waist-deep in bean curd. For the devastation The Jazz Singer did to silent films and plastic surgery has done to Jocelyne Wildenstein, these insidious totes have wreaked on Chinese food – and New Yorkers’ love affair with what was once a great cuisine.
One of the happiest shared memories of natives old enough to remember watching the Cartwrights straddle the Ponderosa was going out for early Sunday dinner in Chinatown. The streets were really narrow, the language strange. And the notion of having dinner out – especially a dinner that didn’t include either ketchup or Tater Tots – was beyond exhilarating. But the big fun was that the snort-and-giggle-named dishes (no kid kept a straight face when Dad said “moo goo”) were as incredibly good as they were exotic. Spare ribs Mom let you eat with your fingers. Crunchy egg rolls. Was anything as weirdly wonderful as shrimp with lobster sauce? Yeah, fried rice.
At these faraway places with names like Bo Bo and Mandarin Inn, what was most appealing was not necessarily the quality of the ingredients, or even their unfamiliar composition, but the immediacy of the cooking. The MSG might have made us a little heady, but the real high was derived from how rich the flavors were. Everyone ate too fast, afraid there wouldn’t be seconds left.
Now takeout menus stack up in pantries like old collection notices. Chinese food has become food for watching Drew Carey in your sweatpants. Why bother getting dressed? It doesn’t taste any better when you head out to wherever you dial it in from. Regardless of what you order, or where you call – Teng Teng, First Wok, one of Charlie’s many Moms – you can bet your last fortune cookie that all you’ll taste is sog. Every single takeout dish, including the fried ones, is now steamed, sure to arrive at your door gummy, soy-saturated but otherwise underseasoned, oily yet steam-table-dehydrated.
Even the restaurants along and off Mott Street offer little relief, reflecting the merely adequate redundancy of the neighboring souvenir shops. True, Joe’s Shanghai deserves its recognition, but its popularity has overtaxed the kitchen and staff.
So we ventured to the other end of the spectrum. Zagat and other notables regard Shun Lee Palace as the worthiest keeper of the wok-charring flame. And admittedly, it’s affecting, even inspiring, to see Chinese food afforded the plush trappings that often backdrop other cuisines. We admire the precision with which the waiters polish and arrange the luxe table placements. And with a trustworthy guide (not hard to find, since few waiters here will fail you), the enormous menu yields many delights: fish soup, Shanghai-style wontons, truly giant prawns in black-bean sauce, sea bass in ginger and scallions, spare ribs, fragrant rack of lamb grilled in garlic and scallions.
However, this is the East Side, after all, where they refer to China as a booming market and not much else. Consequently, dishes like sliced duckling with ginger root are prepared as one might expect at Peacock Alley, while the sauce is so thick it smothers the poor genteel fowl. And delicious as it is, the rack of lamb seems unnervingly out of place on a menu alongside sesame noodles. As does the apple pie, listed below green-tea ice cream. It’s not a failing. Shun Lee ably pleases a certain customer, with varying degrees of authenticity. It just isn’t the sensory memory I was hoping for.
Instead, it is waiting for me on Allen Street. Chiu Kit Ma, his son Jackie, and their gracious and hardworking family may hate me for turning their six-table restaurant upside down after people read this, but Natural Restaurant is as welcome a discovery as a teahouse made of jade. General Tso and his chickens are nowhere to be found.
Note, with relief and amazement, that when your watercress soup with pork comes, the watercress crunches and the pork is tender. No steam-tabled soup could offer this. If you didn’t know that lo mein should crunch, that each noodle should spring separately and sprightly round a fork, it will be like tasting these noodles for the first time. Fried rice is sharp and tangy, with a shower of salty little fish that make it worthy of a main course.
Everything at Natural tastes made-to-order. When we ask what spices coat the fried sea scallops that are so light and sweet, Jackie replies, “Salt, pepper, and special things.” Then his wife gives him a come-clean-with-it look, and he sheepishly recants, “It’s just salt and pepper. It’s all in the timing.” Henny Youngman wasn’t this on-the-money.
Pork chops in a Peking-style barbecue sauce are scrumptious. Beef with mixed vegetables comes out a little muddy and hard to eat. The beef in the West Lake soup appears much leaner. The ubiquitous black-bean sauce undergoes a change in proportion at Natural and becomes lighter and cleaner.
Natural’s bland dining room is dominated by four blue fish tanks from which you can select your crab, big-mouth bass, shrimp, or eel. Estiatorio Milos in midtown makes a big deal about fish on ice, 30 bucks a pound. Jackie will bring over your selection still flapping in a plastic bucket for approval. Not exactly elegant, but his cooking of it is worthy of Limoges, for one third the price of what you’re getting grilled for uptown. The belly is steamed in a broth of scallions, garlic, oil, and ginger and is sublimely sweet and juicy. The rest is cleanly fried in peanut oil with salt and pepper and goes down like caviar on New Year’s Eve. Butterflied shrimp are lickably crunchy, shell and all, with a dipping sauce of soy, seaweed, and peanut oil. Eel is light and bouncy, resting on snappy bok choy; lobster can get overwhelmed by garlic; and crabs are a mess in fiery hot sauce (though they’re worth getting sloppy for).
Jackie even offers ostrich. “Tastes like chicken, yes?” Yes, but he is so thrilled to serve it that you can’t deny him. He and the whole Ma family have earned your compliance, for joyously invigorating the integrity of a cuisine that was sinking to the bottom of Lake Tung Ting. For that, they have my gratitude. And I have their leftovers. The best part is, they don’t pack them in those nasty white containers. “Cardboard is no good. Get all soggy,” says Jackie. I hope you make a fortune, cookie.
Shun Lee Palace, 155 East 55th Street (371-8844). Open Mon.-Sat., noon-11:30 p.m., Sundays till 11. Appetizers $3-$14, entrées $13-$38. All major credit cards.
Natural Restaurant, 88 Allen Street (966-1321). open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Appetizers $1-$5, entrées $6-$13. Cash only.