Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Friday, November 2, 2012

That Thing They Du and a Gift of Baijiu

 Never eat Chinese food in Oklahoma - Bryan Miller

This is the story of how I found out you can get good Chinese food in Buffalo.

In the immortal words of my Prof. (later Dean) Phil Closius: stay with me people! This will wander a bit, but I think you enjoy the journey.

When you mention the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, most people’s minds point to Flick getting his tongue stuck to the flagpole, or to Ralphie dropping the F-bomb and getting his mouth washed out with soap. Not to me. To me that quintessential scene is the family dining in a Chinese restaurant after their turkey is devoured by the neighbor’s dog. It proved to all that I hadn’t been lying about what my family did for Christmas.

For Jews of a certain age – mine - Christmas pre-1975 (when Jaws became the first summer blockbuster) meant going to that year’s big movie and dining on Chinese. The former because on Christmas Day there were no lines to stand in, and the latter because they were open. The best part was that all your Jewish friends and acquaintances were doing the same thing.

Unfortunately for me, eating Chinese at that time meant a combination of bad Cantonese combined with faux Chinese food (BCFC).  A change started when Mom and my brothers came into the family, along with Mom’s hometown of Toronto. Excursions to Toronto’s Chinatowns with the family became, as I got older, jaunts with my cousins, with friends and roommates, and to impress girls.

When my culinary world began to expand in the early 80’s one of my first forays from the Francophile leanings of Julia and Jacques was into Chinese cuisine. In those early days I was guided by the friendly encouragement of Martin Yan and the Frugal Gourmet, with recipes for the latter provided via SASE envelopes. (Remember those?)

By the time I returned to Buffalo, my taste buds were used to better than BCFC. Rochester, at least, had made some strides in the previous decade with the arrival of some Szechwan and Hunan eateries. Buffalo remained much as I left it. Those who knew of my love for food, particularly the foods of the Orient, would ask where to get good Chinese in Buffalo. My answer invariably would be Ft. Erie.

Yep. You have to cross the border into Canada.

For those unfamiliar with our local geography, but for the Niagara River and the international border running through it, Ft. Erie is a suburb of Buffalo. It is closer to the center of the city than Kenmore, Cheektowaga or any of the “first ring” suburbs. Prior to 9/11, popping over that border for lunch was an easy consideration. For me that lunch usually meant Ming Teh, the best Chinese in Buffalo.

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There are at least six Chinese restaurants in just across the border, four alone on Niagara Blvd. home of the nearest outlet of the Canadian Ballet. There is also an Oriental grocery nearby. I have been unable to ascertain why this concentration in an area best known for strip clubs, Bingo and a racetrack, but proximity to Buffalo is a likely answer.

Most offered the same depressing BCFC fare. Ming Teh was different. Even the common dishes were cleaner, more balanced. More interesting, if you will. If it wasn’t up to the standards of Toronto it was close. It was enough for the Buffalo News reviewer to rate it nearly perfect. Well above what Buffalo had to offer.

In fact, until recently the only reviewed Chinese restaurant worth investigating was Golden Duck and its “secret” menu. That was a disappointment. A deceiving disappointment, it turns out.

The opening quote from the then New York Times Restaurant Critic is one of his rules governing eating while on the road. It is not a dis at the State of Oklahoma (as much as it might deserve it). Rather, it is a recognition that you cannot get good (insert immigrant group here) food absent a significant cluster of those immigrants.

As I have discovered, the mere presence of a Chinatown does not indicate good food (see, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia). The absence of such an ethnic enclave does not mean that critical mass to provide such is lacking. A concentration of Chinese natives and immigrants could cluster around – oh, say a University? Something more must be considered:   if the only Chinese food you have available is BCFC, if that is all your taste buds know other that stuff from a supermarket can, will people expect Chinese food to taste like that. Do restaurateurs dumb down their menus accordingly.

How I discovered the answer to that is a tale of friendship.

It’s a tale of the Du's: Yanhai, Jie, and Kevin (they have an older daughter in college – we only really met her once). Yanhai and Jai are China born, the kids here. We met them a little over seven years ago; at the corner where the School Bus stops. Together with the other corner parents, we got to know each other. The Dus became good friends.

Discussions eventually included my profession and my interest in Chinese food.  That led  to an exchange of food and still hard to find supplies (I can't think of a better pat on the back than being told your Lop Cheong is the best they'd had since they left China). When Yanhai’s mother was here from China she made dumplings for our Chinese New Year celebration.

The following year we spent Chinese New Year at their home, a night of good food and much laughter. A few months later it was Passover here. When they had occasion to travel home, there were always gifts for us – unique culinary gifts for me. A dumpling rolling pin, a bottle of Baijiu (still unopened) and most recently a pair of books written in China (in glorious Chinglish) on cuisine and culture.

We will accept their offer to travel there with them someday.

Those books were bittersweet as they were sent here from South Carolina. Yanhai lost his job in the wake of the Great Recession and was unable to find anything suitable here. He accepted a post as a research Professor at the University of South Carolina. Before they moved, they invited us to dinner at a local restaurant. A feast of traditional Chinese dishes. It was served in a private dining room with a round table and our Snudda’s big brother in the center. (What, you don't speak IKEA?) Course after course, thirteen in all, of some of the finest food I have ever had.

Where did we find a Chinese Restaurant this wonderful? How was it kept hidden? Under our noses, it seems. It was the aforementioned Golden Duck. And the food was on neither of their menus. They are capable of this – only the demand is lacking.

In the short time since this banquet we have seen renewed signs of hope: Kung Food, Ming Café and the special Menu at Peking Quick One are all encouraging. Perhaps someday we’ll get beyond the secret menus. But those of us who enjoy the real thing have to support these establishments, not just with our patronage, but with our voice. That erstwhile Food Editor still has a column. When recently asked where to find good Chinese locally her answer was the same two places she reviewed years ago.

No mention of anything new.

We deserve better than that.


The Banquet:

First Course: Winter Melon Soup with Seafood
Second Course: Shrimp with Mango and Asparagus.
Third Course: Pork Potstickers.
Fourth Course: Shrimp and Scallops with glazed walnuts and broccoli.
Fifth Course: Steamed Sea Bass with slivered ginger and scallions.
Sixth Course: Pineapple Chicken.
Seventh Course: Steamed Meatballs with Baby Bok Choy
Eighth Course: Boned Chicken, steamed and Glazed.
Ninth Course: Seafood (shrimp, squid, scallops) with straw mushrooms in a Cassava or Yucca "birds nest".
Tenth Course: Stir Fried Baby Bean Shoots.
Eleventh Course: Pork and Shrimp Fried Rice.
Twelfth Course: Baked Sesame Buns
Thirteenth Course: Fruit Plate

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -