Enter the Dragon

On Chinese New Year, I always wish that we had a Chinatown in our town. I don’t mean in Los Angeles, where there are several large and thriving Chinese communities — all an hour or more drive away. I mean in our little beachy, mountainy community of Topanga Canyon. The entire of our one-stoplight village is itself no bigger than the most modest 3rd-tier middle-American city’s Chinatown. But it would be cool to have a tea-and-dumpling house, a market and a crappy chotchke shop. I know a couple people in the canyon of Chinese descent, so I guess that’ll have to do.

Chinese immigrants in the New World

I like ethnic celebrations, and if I lived in New York or San Francisco on this Chinese New Year, I would hop a subway or cable car, go unwrap some sticky rice and watch a parade. It’s fun to see Chinese schoolchildren in traditional silk costumes and serpentine dragons coursing through the streets. And I like the sulfurous smell and wind-blown red confetti of exploded firecrackers.

As I venture out on a rainy but fortuitous Year of the Dragon Monday to Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, I make it my mission of the day to find good and authentic regional Chinese food without driving all over the city. And as usual, it proves frustratingly fruitless. Unless you travel into a Chinese community — one where Chinese people live and work — you will encounter only the kind of Chinese food prepared for American people. The menus are invariably the same: hot-and-sour and won ton soups, paper-wrapped chicken and shrimp toast, minced chicken in lettuce cups, various fried chicken or shrimp dishes in sticky sweet sauces (sweet & sour, orange, slippery, etc.), half ducks, Kung Pao everything, some specials involving “three flavors,” and so on. I’m not sure you could get any of these things if you went to China. Not that I’m looking for sea cucumber or beef tendons — but isn’t there a happy medium? (Our friend from Szechuan province, Guonan, once served us hot pot with duck tongues, which was perhaps a bit too authentic.) If I crave Japanese, I can get sushi, Osaka-style shabu shabu, Kyoto kaiseki… Mexican restaurants on any given block range from Baja barbecue to Oaxacan moles. But if I want Chinese, it’s chow mein or bust. So I head to the best of the bunch and get some sizzling rice soup and moo shu pork.

As a cook, I move confidently through the rarefied realm of French sauces and the rustic braggadocio of handmade ravioli; I can produce authentic southern Mexican soups and true Moroccan bastillas with equal ease; and I’ve achieved perfection in my sushi rice and slicing of fish… But Chinese cuisine has always intimidated me. Nothing I make ever quite tastes right. The correct consistency of sauce is elusive. And I feel like a fraud. Oddly, only duck — perhaps the most demanding and unforgiving of poultry — emerges from my kitchen looking and tasting properly Chinese. But I keep the faith, and keep trying.

Superior Poultry, Chinatown, L.A.

Speaking of duck, a favorite story for the Chinese New Year:

When I was a college student, I used to go to Superior Poultry in Chinatown to purchase ducks for Peking duck. Inside, the shop was crowded with Chinese people yelling and gesturing, and cages filled with live birds — black chickens, white chickens, quail, pigeons… and ducks. I would timidly approach the counter where they usually had recently killed ducks available for purchase. It took some getting used to taking home a bird that still had its head and feet attached. Once back in Suburbia, I’d blanch the duck in hot water and honey, and hang it from my mom’s kitchen lamp with a fan trained upon it to dry the skin (and would often hear a scream from the kitchen when mom got home). One particular afternoon, gorged on har gow and shui mai, my girlfriend and I headed to Superior to get a duck. At the counter, they told me it would be about 20 minutes. We went outside and sat on the curb, watching the activity along Broadway. When suddenly there was a commotion inside the shop, and out of the front door came a large white duck in a panic. The bird ran into the street, quacking wildly and heading west, weaving in and out of traffic, a guy in a white smock in fast pursuit. My girlfriend and I looked at one another with pale countenances and a grim realization: Our duck. We snuck away back to our car, and left.

I didn’t make Peking duck for awhile after that.

Gong Hei Fat Choy! 

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. paul
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 13:59:00

    I am a Dragon according to the Chinese Zodiac. Hopefully this will be my year.


  2. g
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 21:03:46

    In the 1960s, my father worked not too far from Chicago’s Chinatown, and he became a frequent customer at one restaurant. When he learned he would be transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio, he went into the kitchen and asked the chefs if they would teach him to cook his favorite dishes, since he knew quite well that no Chinese food could be found in Cincinnati in 1967.

    This was the beginning of my father’s “career” as an amateur Asian chef. He cooked us wonderful Cantonese dishes in Ohio, and then got into Szechuan food from books. When we moved again and he worked in Mid-town Manhattan in the East ’40s he discovered Japanese food. He taught me how to make sukiyaki, and he taught me how to eat sushi. Your post with that photo and the thought of cheap crappy gift shops makes me remember visiting Chinatown in Chicago with my dad.

    He died in 2002 in a small town in Texas, but he’d have loved it here, with so much great Asian food to try.


  3. Michelle
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 22:43:12

    Such a great post. Alas, though, if you want to really feel good Asian restaurant-deprivation, try living in the South! We couldn’t live between West Coast trips without Fuchsia Dunlop’s books.


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