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January 30, 2012

Temple Street Night Market

Temple Street Spicy Crab Dominic Armato

Business lunches are all fine and good... okay, usually a lot more than good... but this was a trip where I couldn't wait to get my hands on some street food. Given our work schedule, that wasn't going to happen during the day. Which was fine by me, because it had been close to a decade, possibly more, since I'd visited the night market on Temple Street.

Beer MeDominic Armato

It hurts, really, to see throngs of people crowding a half mile stretch of Temple Street at 11:30 on a school night when there are only a handful of nearly deserted joints that are open at that hour back home. Yeah, a good chunk of the folks are tourists, the goods are of dubious origins and the food is... well, we'll get to that... but the energy of a place like this is intoxicating. All the neon of Vegas crammed into narrow streets that are little more than glorified alleys, crowds of people crammed in shoulder to shoulder, and hawkers selling wares from rickety stalls. Walk towards the north end of the market and the bazaar gives way to palm readers, dozens of them lined up, and dozens of people lined up for the most popular ones. Chinese opera performances used to be routine at the market, and perhaps they still are, but at least on this evening makeshift karaoke bars seemed to be more popular, a machine, a mic and a few tables set up under a tarp, three or four of them in a row, one amateur vocalist singing over another the next booth over. And, of course, the food.

Spice CrabsDominic Armato

I read a number of years ago that most of the old street stalls and carts had been shut down, and it kills me to know there's a piece of Hong Kong history I could have experienced when I first started visiting, but didn't. Still, Temple Street certainly isn't lacking for eats, even if the ones now scattered throughout the area all have some kind of permanent lodging. And even if it isn't being made from mobile carts and temporary stands, the restaurants in the area bring the food out into the open, selling items from windows to snack on as you walk, and coopting sidewalks, corners and alleys -- wherever there's some open space -- tables and chairs spilling out into the streets. So I picked one that seemed especially popular, a move that can always be a good or bad thing, and settled in for some seafood at Temple Street Spicy Crab.

Black Bean ClamsDominic Armato

More than a restaurant, they've practically taken over the entire corner of Temple and Nanking Street. The restaurant covers the storefronts on three of the four corners, and by the time the tables have moved into the streets, it seems like a hundred people sitting outside, under massive tarps and awnings, plowing through crabs and other seafood and putting away a healthy amount of beer. It's tough to argue with that kind of logic on a balmy night, so I followed suit, ordering one of the house special spicy crabs, and some black bean clams. When the crab arrived, it looked and smelled fabulous. But even though I was halfway through a rather sizeable beer, it didn't leave much of an impression. It was surely stir fried to order, piled with crispy garlic, scallions and dried chiles. But the texture and flavor of the meat within suggested that the crab had been pre-cooked earlier. A lot earlier. It was dry, stuck to the shell, and devoid of natural sweetness. To tell the truth, I had a far, far better version of the same dish back in Phoenix at Nee House, where they call it Kowloon Style Crab. Though to be fair, I'm quite confident this wasn't Kowloon's best food forward. The clams were better, but still left me wanting. The sauce wasn't terrible, but it was overthickened and somewhat dull. The clams did their best to fight through it, with only marginal success. After paying my bill, I was halfway down the street before I did the math and realized I'd been charged $25 US for the crab. Even if that was the actual price (which I doubt), it was still robbery.

Boiled ShrimpDominic Armato

Lesson learned. Convert the bill before paying, and make sure dinner's still swimming before ordering. So I walked a little further down and spied a spot named Aberdeen Seafood Restaurant that had tubs brimming with little critters, still flopping about. One of the women running the joint walked over to ask if I saw anything I'd like. I decided to keep it simple. It's such a treat in China to get shrimp that haven't been frozen, that still have that incredible natural sweetness. So I pointed to a tub filled with smaller shrimp, and told her I'd like some of them boiled. I took a seat 20 feet away, and waited for her to grab the net to fish out my dinner. She never did. The ones that did arrive were fine, but enough of them were off that I doubt they were swimmers. They were a long way from the piles of almost candy sweet shrimp I've had the unparalleled pleasure of devouring on many previous visits to China. Bait and switch on Temple Street. Too bad.

Street Food Vendors Dominic Armato

With two strikes, I figured I'd give one of the street food stands a shot on my way back to the hotel. Three ladies were running a stand that was getting a lot of traffic, and that offered two items I'd read about.

Curry Fish BallsDominic Armato

The first was curried fish balls, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Anybody who's done Asian hot pot is familiar with these fellows, pulverized fish mixed with a little egg white and starch and formed into balls that have a kind of light, springy texture when cooked. Here, as at other stands in the area, they sat bubbling away in a pan of curried broth, and upon being ordered one of the ladies would grab a pair of tongs and a skewer, fish out and stab a half dozen or so, and hand them over. I'm not sure why they inspire the devotion I've read elsewhere, but I certainly enjoyed them. These had a very light, spongy texture, light and airy, and the curry was just a little spicy, possessed of more fragrance than flavor, and not the slightest hint of sweetness. I love fish balls, and while I'd hoped for more given the swooning I've seen others do in their honor, I could see these growing on me.

Fried IntestineDominic Armato

For a second item, after a largely disappointing evening, my first instinct was to take the safe route and get some shumai. Then I figured, screw safe. Who knows when I'll be back to Asia again? Churning away in a cauldron of bubbling hot fat was another popular street food I'd read about. Long, bright red coils of pig intestines, folded upon themselves multiple times over, were lightly browned on the flat lip of the pot, dropped into the fat to sizzle away for a while, then removed, sliced and skewered. I hesitated at first because... well... the scent of this stuff is something to behold, even from three storefronts away. James Brown wishes he was this funky. But you know, there are a lot of foods that are abusive on the nostrils and far gentler on the palate. So I went for it. When I bit in, my first thought was that the exterior had a fabulously light, crisp texture that I-- oh wow. No more than three quarters of a second later, I got the interior layers. And as much as it pains me to say it, I was defeated. It was, indeed, too funky in here. There are frontiers of offal that I'm just not yet prepared to explore, and this particular snack is at least three levels removed from where I am now. It is with great chagrin that I admit I deposited the remaining bites in the nearest garbage can as stealthily as I could, and I accept whatever food nerd demerits I've earned for this action. My limits are few, but for the time being, this is one of them.

So I had substandard Chinese seafood, I got ripped off by unscrupulous merchants, and I went down in flames when trying to push my limits a bit. And yet, I'd call it a good night. Because the truth is that it's a much a cultural experience as it is a culinary experience, and sitting out on the street on a balmy night, enjoying a beer on my right and a spicy crab on my left, surrounded by throngs and throngs of Hong Kong natives who are doing the same, it's an exhilarating feeling. Sometimes... sometimes... it isn't all about the food.

Temple Street Spicy Crab
210 Temple Street
Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
2780 8438
Aberdeen Seafood Restaurant
105 Woosung Street
Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
2384 3226

January 27, 2012

Lunch in Guangdong - Part II

BBQ Duck Dominic Armato

Oh, we're not done with business lunches yet.

Sometimes, lunchtime hits near a train station in one of the urban centers, or while visiting a city office, and we end up in a restaurant like the two I wrote about in Part I. But while some older factories are close to the city centers, for the most part they're a ways out in the suburbs. Except that in the areas surrounding Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou -- at least the parts that I've seen -- the suburbs don't appear to be residential so much as industrial, lowrise urban sprawl packed with factories and support businesses, the streets jammed with light trucks, mopeds and the occasional luxury car. Even today, there's a kind of wild west feel out there. I keep looking around, half expecting Swedgin to come strolling out onto a second floor balcony to survey the chaos below. Except instead of panning for gold, everybody's manufacturing consumer products.

Soup with Black BeansDominic Armato

When we're out in these industrial parks that seem to go on forever in every direction, lunch often takes place in humbler surroundings, a rented concrete bunker of a shop with a rolldown shutter front, makeshift kitchen in back and a few tables and chairs cobbled together, or in this case, a small private room comprising the entirety of the second floor. This is still a significant step up from the joints where most of the folks who live in the area will drop in for something simple to eat. They're still rolling out the red carpet as much as can be done in this part of town. But these lunches are predictably a somewhat more rustic affair, comprised of dishes that are similar to those in the nicer restaurants nearer the city core, but rougher around the edges, made with more of what we'd consider secondary and tertiary cuts, simpler presentations, lots of stews, and overall a more humble feel despite a similar formal dining format. We had one such lunch on this trip, a nameless, dusty concrete storefront, and while I can't call it one of my favorites of the trip there was some tasty food and it's interesting to see similar dishes in a less refined state.

Pork RibsDominic Armato

As I've mentioned elsewhere countless times, soups and broths even in casual restaurants are always so clear and clean, or if cloudy they're intentionally and uniformly so. Which is why it was an obvious and notable difference in the level of refinement when the beef broth here was stained with black bean paste, cloudy and unfiltered, containing chunks of bone and cartilage that provided flavor to the liquid but were certainly not there to be consumed. But though the refinement was lacking, the flavor most certainly wasn't, its full beef flavor pushing right on through its somewhat murky appearance, with earthy beans and sediment sitting at the bottom. Different, to be sure. More humble, certainly. But still quite delicious in a less technically accomplished manner.

Beef with MushroomsDominic Armato

A plate of lean pork ribs was chopped into tiny bits, deep fried and then stir fried with garlic, chile sauce, a bit of something sweet and something else with a lightly fermented character. The sauce was simple and effective, downright chunky, and the dish was a great example of how so many meat and fish dishes, in stark contrast to even largely traditional Chinese cuisine back home, are comprised of much more bone, sinew and cartilage than meat. It's another style of cooking that I wish we were more willing to embrace. There's so much flavor in those bits, and even if they aren't digestible, the act of cooking them along with the rest imparts flavor and texture that's unachievable otherwise. It's a little more effort. Sometimes a lot more. Particularly when, despite your proficiency, you weren't raised on chopsticks. But the rewards are there for those willing to put in the work.

Celery with EggsDominic Armato

Of course, the kind of tender, juicy slices of meat to which Americans are more accustomed aren't lacking either. A simple beef and mushroom stir fry was lovely, lightly scented with ginger, barely touched with sauce rather than swimming in it, the meat lightly sweet in flavor and velvety in texture. Simple vegetables are always in play, perhaps of less consistent quality in the industrial areas, but when the flavor of a plate of limp celery can put most other vegetable sides to shame, that says something I think. Stir fried with eggs and some slivers of carrot, bathed in a light sauce that I presume was a light chicken broth base, lightly seasoned and tasting almost entirely of the vegetable itself. I'm always amazed that while I'm away, these simple vegetables are among the dishes I miss the most.

Sichuan Fish HeadsDominic Armato

A bit of a surprise came in the form of two fish heads, prepared in Sichuan style! Steamed and/or stewed, I was less interested in the fish than I was in what was sitting on top of them. The facing heaven chiles! I'm sure of it! The one thing I most wanted to have in my possession when I left China! Sadly, this was before my Wan Chai Market adventure, and only reinforced the notion that I'd have no trouble finding them. I enjoyed the dish, tender fish with chiles and whole Sichuan pepper, though it was so light I wonder if this was more of a Cantonese riff on Sichuan flavors. If set next on the table for most good Sichuan meals I've had, this dish's flavor would have been completely lost in the lingering glow of the more fiery and explosive dishes around it. Rather, this seemed more like the product of a Cantonese palate living on the edge. But having never visited Sichuan province, there's a good bit of speculation here on my part. But I'd love to know. I'd love even more to have walked out with their supply of facing heaven chiles. *sigh*

Stewed Pork BloodDominic Armato

Our last dish was, perhaps, pushing the boundaries of Western tastes a little too far for my comfort. I will never forget my first experience with congealed pork blood many years ago, less because of the pork blood itself and more because of the cultural revolution theme restaurant surrounding it (long story). I believe I even cracked a couple of "Jell-o Positive" jokes in the aftermath. But I've long since made my peace with it, and have come to miss it when, for example, a Vietnamese restaurant proprietor sees fit to leave it out of my bun bo hue. Still, I'm not to the point where I'm prepared to have more than a couple of chunks in a sitting, and when large, thick slabs of it, lighter in texture and almost gelatinous, seared off like slices of foie gras sit in a thick stew that's seasoned with the same... well, let's just say I'm not quite there yet.

Water Boiled BeefDominic Armato

Still, it was a very nice meal, and the hits greatly outweighed the misses, and I always enjoy this style of food, and not just as an educational experience. Another lunch more on the casual end of the spectrum was a total crapshoot that paid off. Driving from Guangzhou to Dongguan is a hairy enough experience as it is in a densely populated area where the vast majority of drivers have only been behind the wheel for a few years and street signs, lights and lines are regarded as vague suggestions, if at all. But that difficulty is compounded by random unannounced highway closures. The Guangdong infrastructure is in a constant state of revision and expansion, the kind of chaotic mess that results when you can't build the roads fast enough to keep up with the explosion of cars. So while driving miles of back roads searching for a detour, our hosts selected a restaurant, seemingly at random judging by how quickly they veered off the road when they spied it, and we ended up with a rather nice collection of dishes.

Celery and Chinese BaconDominic Armato

It started off ordinarily if deliciously enough, a bony cut of roast duck that was provided almost exclusively for the skin, and with good reason... what more does a duck dish need than crisp, sweet, lacquered skin? But the duck gave way to another surprise... another Sichuan dish! Water boiled beef -- a misnomer if ever there were one -- swimming in a vibrant and fiery broth with chiles, Sichuan pepper, onions, scallions, garlic... gosh, a whole lot of stuff I couldn't identify. But the beef was sweet and yet stood up to a killer broth. We were provided with a slotted spoon, but frankly, I would have enjoyed ditching the beef and vegetables altogether and simply sipping the oily broth. This may have put me in the minority, even among our local dining companions. But consensus was that it was an excellent dish and this random roadside stop made some pretty darn good food.

Spicy Fish HeadsDominic Armato

Celery again! Well, it WAS the same folks doing the ordering. My father took a few bites and expressed the same amazement that I always do. "How do they make these vegetables so fabulous?" he asked. "It doesn't hurt that they're slathered in pork fat," I responded. And though a crisper, fresher, more flavorful bunch of celery than at the other establishment was half the difference, the other half was that it had been stir fried with slices of Chinese bacon, some of it tough enough to be inedible, but all of it fatty enough to lend its slippery lipid to the dish, coating the celery with a luscious sheen of deep, cured pork flavor and a hint of salinity. So simple and so good. Sichuan fish heads also made another appearance (did I mention the same folks were ordering?), though this time around I couldn't even identify them as fish heads at first. That it was fish, I knew. What part of the fish it came from was the mystery. There is no delicate way to eat a dish like this, and the flavor was such that I didn't much care. It's basically a jumbled pile of bone, cartilage, skin, fins, gelatin and perhaps a little meat here and there, and the only way to eat it is to seize a piece and slurp and suck away all of the slippery, gelatinous goodness until only the inedible bits remain. After mowing down a few chunks, I determined that it was, in fact, a head. Or at least part of one. This fish must've been a monster. But the flavor was fabulous and I made sure that no bit of edible flesh remained on the plate. I may still have reservations when it comes to large volumes of pork blood, but slurpy fish heads quiver and tremble in my presence. Partly because… well, you know… gelatinous and all. But suffice it to say that they’re just one of the many reasons I'm always happy when we're treated to lunch in less upscale environs.

January 26, 2012

The Quest - Wan Chai Market

Wan Chai Market Dominic Armato

I found myself with a free morning in Hong Kong, and decided to embark upon a quest. Of course, when I left the hotel, I thought it would be more of an errand. But sometimes what we expect will be a simple task ends up being a little more involved than we anticipated.

Visual AidDominic Armato

Facing Heaven Chiles. A legendary cornerstone ingredient of Sichuan cuisine. I say legendary because, good golly, are they difficult to get a hold of. Can't find them in the supermarket. Can't find them in the Asian markets. Can't find an online source. Heard rumors of them popping up in Southern California from time to time, but never seen them for sale in person. Now, Hong Kong is in the heart of Cantonese country, but I thought to myself that we're in what is now China in an incredibly cosmopolitan city with a vibrant international food scene. Surely, an ingredient so vital to one of China's most notable regional cuisines will be attainable in a major market area. I'll stroll around until I find some, buy a big bushel of them, toss them in the extra empty suitcase I brought with, and bring them home with me. But just in case I encountered any difficulty on what would surely be a trivial errand, I armed myself. I prepared a page with the name of the chiles, including the English translation, the Roman character transliteration, and the original Chinese characters. I also pulled up a clear picture of the chiles since the value of a visual aid can never be overstated. And hopping on the MTR, I set out for Wan Chai Market, presuming that I'd return with a massive pile of the purportedly fragrant and wonderfully flavorful dried chiles to bring home for myself and some friends.

Fresh. Very Fresh.Dominic Armato

Though there's a small portion that's indoors, the larger indoor market having been closed a number of years ago, Wan Chai Market today is primarily a street market, combining a chaotic collection of makeshift street stalls and carts with small street-facing storefronts. It covers a large area south of the Wanchai stop on the MTR, and for those without a good sense of direction, the bustle combined with angled streets make it easy to get turned around quickly. Which is just as well, because wandering the market is a dizzying experience that it's just as well to get lost in. With hundreds of carts, stands, stalls and stores, surely, I thought, facing heaven chiles are somewhere within a three blocks' walk of here... it's just a matter of finding them.

FishDominic Armato

So I wandered for a while, and was at first taken aback by the sheer size of the market. I've wandered amazing markets in Asia before, and though I never tire of it, I'm accustomed to the noise, the smells and the utter chaos. But Wan Chai market stretches on for blocks in every direction and the amount of ground it covers is something to behold. So I walked, stopping only sparingly to take a photo or two, until I started to come across storefronts that specialized in dry goods. I would ask if they sold facing heaven chiles. If I was feeling ambitious, I'd try to pronounce the Chinese name. But since I encountered a furrowed brow every time I asked, I quickly resorted to immediately offering my phone, the various versions of the name and the photo prominently displayed. What I expected was sudden recognition, "Yes, yes!" whether in English or Chinese, followed by either an apology or the presentation of a bushel of dried chiles. If the latter, I imagined in my head the ways in which I might attempt to convey that I wanted the whole thing. No, all of it. Yes, the whole bushel. What I did NOT expect, and what I got at every single place I stopped, was an even more deeply furrowed brow after I presented my visual aid. Most tried to sound out the Chinese name. Had I inadvertently selected a different written version than was commonly used in Hong Kong? Surely, the photo would get the point across. But stall after stall, all I got were shrugs.

Live PoultryDominic Armato

So I wandered on, and I saw butchers who brandished massive cleavers, hacking apart flesh and bone with swift, strong strokes, and hanging their wares on hooks for display. I saw coops full of chickens, finally back after the avian flu scare, their throats slit so they could be bled, scalded and plucked on the spot, a fresh chicken in your hands moments after you looked it in the eye as you selected it. I saw all manner of fish, slung across wide tables, all sold whole, not a fillet in sight, since you obviously know how to clean them and the bits the Westerners throw out are the tastiest anyway. I saw shops that sold medicinal herbs, gleaming white oases in the wet, grimy and bloody market, where perfect rows of dried plants and animal parts, only a tiny fraction of which I could identify, sat in large glass jars, waiting to be weighed on precision scales. I saw produce stands brimming with fresh greens, radishes, greens, mushrooms, greens and more greens, most likely plucked from the earth that very morning. I saw tiny dry goods stores, their walls so packed with boxes and bags and parcels that the only floor space was a tiny area no bigger than a phone booth, where the proprietor would stand and sell to customers on the street, retrieving merchandise from the walls and ceiling with a hook on the end of a long pole. I saw BBQ stores, pickled vegetable stalls, flower carts and pet stores. I saw a store that sold fine foods from Canada, for cryin' out loud, but what I did NOT see were facing heaven chiles.

The Final Insult Dominic Armato

I wandered Wan Chai market for nearly three hours. I stopped and inquired at no fewer than 20 stalls and stores that I thought looked promising. I learned that maybe that store over there would have them. I learned that that store over there didn't. I learned that Saturday morning is a very, very bad time to drive around Wan Chai. I learned that from ten feet away, dried Chinese dates look enough like facing heaven chiles to tease you for a moment. I learned, once again, that there are few things on earth more exciting to me than a crowded, musty, energetic, vibrant food market, exploding with meats and fish and vegetables and people of every kind. And I also learned, much to my dismay, that the dry goods merchants of Wan Chai have apparently never even heard of facing heaven chiles, or chao tian jiao, or 朝天椒, much less thought to keep a bushel of them on hand for a wandering gweilo whose stupid assumption that he could get a Sichuan ingredient in the land of Cantonese cookery had turned his errand into an impossible quest. But it was still a good morning.

January 25, 2012

Peking Garden

Braised Scallops Dominic Armato

Old habits die hard.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that we've been staying in the same hotel in Hong Kong for about 20 years... since I was a teenager. And when you go frequently, you start to fall into habits. And one of those habits has always been to start the trip with a review of the week's itinerary over lunch at Peking Garden downstairs. The day in Shanghai bumped that tradition on this particular trip, but on one late evening after a 12 hour day in China, we decided to get our fix.

The Peking Garden I refer to is the one in Pacific Place, the extremely upscale mall where, judging from the number of supercars in the parking lot, Hong Kong's elite mingle with expats and tourists in a setting that's as divorced from old China as you're likely to get. But it's an offshoot of a Hong Kong stalwart that's been around since the '70s, and over the years it's provided us with some truly excellent classics and contemporary takes thereon. I've sung Peking Garden's praises before. But in the intervening years, though I'm not sure which, it would seem that one of us has changed.

Hot Sour SoupDominic Armato

The room has, certainly. In a move that was undoubtedly designed to confuse jetlagged travelers who haven't visited in a few years, four of the six restaurants in the restaurant court were there five years ago, but only one of them occupies the same space while the other three have all swapped positions. And, whilst playing musical chairs with its neighbors, Peking Garden has contemporized, redesigning to create an "American" decor (their word). And as part of the atmospheric shift, they're clearly trying to class the joint up as well, adding embroidered napkins, artful presentations, elaborate serving pieces and sleeker attire for the waitstaff. The menu's gotten a makeover too, dropping the old Sichuan Garden half and focusing more on the specialties of the house and less, seemingly, on the more traditional fare. It's not really the same restaurant it was, but enough of the menu is familiar that we managed to pick out a couple of favorites to go along with some new dishes.

Sweet Sour Chili ShrimpDominic Armato

Hot sour soup is as good as it ever was, and I continue to appreciate it just for its simplicity. I know this is setting the bar low, but man, it's so nice to have a hot sour soup that got that way via chinkiang vinegar and white pepper. Every time I get a hot sour soup that's made with sambal, I die a little inside, and it happens far more often than I'd like. But another old favorite, the sweet sour chili shrimp, seems to have lost some of its luster. I always loved that the sweet deferred to the sour, that the sauce had a kind of liquory intensity, and that the aromatics punched through rather than getting buried in the potent sauce. But on this occasion, it lacked the intensity that I remember, was almost unpleasantly syrupy, and the coating on the shrimp came off as oddly bready... not at all what I remember. In this instance, I don't think it's me... this dish used to be better.

Dry Chili ChickenDominic Armato

That I was merely satisfied by the dry chili chicken may, however, have more to do with me. I was attempting to order a dish that I listed on my Deliciousness of 2005 post (oy... reading stuff that old is embarrassing), and somehow ended up with something else. Many of the dishes have been renamed, and in fact, I'm not even sure how the dish we did get was officially titled. But in any case, it was a dry Sichuan-style chicken with chiles and Sichuan pepper and peanuts. And it was fine. I've had better (and would have MUCH better a few days later... more on that shortly), and I had a hard time getting excited about it. The punch just wasn't quite there. Even flatter were the shrimp-stuffed scallops, coated and braised in a kind of garlicky brown sauce that again was... okay. This is a dish that Americanized Chinese restaurants butcher, and this certainly wasn't butchered, but nor did it have the kind of life and vibrancy that I've come to expect from good Chinese cuisine. It just came off flat.

String BeansDominic Armato

Stir fried string beans weren't off, just timid, and I wasn't getting the slightest sense of wok hay (AKA the otherwise indescribable sense of stir fry awesomeness when it's done right), which is absolutely critical for these simple vegetables. I couldn't point to a specific flaw, precisely. But the beauty that should have been there just wasn't. And that was dinner at one of our old favorite standbys. So which is it? Did Peking Garden lose a step in the relocation and transformation? Or would 2006 me be as impressed by these dishes as I was back then? I'm not sure. Both probably play a role, but I suspect the former rather than the latter. I know more about Chinese cuisine than I did six years ago, but even then I think I had a good sense of when dishes popped and when they didn't, even if it was less often that I understood why. Or maybe it was just an off night. But even if that's the case, whether to the world or just to me, it's clear that this is no longer the restaurant that it once was. And that's too bad.

Peking Garden (Admiralty)
Shop 005, Pacific Place
Admiralty, Hong Kong
2845 8452
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 4:30 PM5:30 PM - 11:30 PM

January 24, 2012

Lunch in Guangdong - Part I

Five Days' Lunches Dominic Armato

Sometimes, when I tell people that our business lunches in China involve an obscene amount of food, I'm not sure the enormity of the experience is properly conveyed.

Beef SoupDominic Armato

Part of it is simply the nature of dining in China. When eating with a group in this kind of setting, you never have more than a few bites of anything. And when you have six people or more at the table, that's a lot of ordering power. Still, this is one business week -- five days -- worth of lunches, and when you look at them all together, it's... impressive. Though we stay in Hong Kong, work is a short train ride away in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou, three cities in Guangdong province just north of the border. A metropolitan area that was dirt roads and bicycles when the border first opened is now a booming multi-metropolis that gets more prosperous and cosmopolitan every year. The transformation just in Shenzhen since I first visited has been something to behold, and though the always expanding economic zone is a magnet for people who live throughout the southern portion of the country, the local traditions dominate most restaurants, particularly outside of the city centers. So while we might sometimes visit a restaurant that specializes in one of China's other regional cuisines, and individual dishes sneak in here and there, what we eat is largely Cantonese.

Corn, Carrot and Pine NutsDominic Armato

I always feel lucky to catch the names of the restaurants where we eat, much less the locations. Roman characters are elusive, and the industrial sprawl that dominates the region makes it difficult if not impossible to tell which way you're going when watching the scenery whiz by from the backseat of a car. Still, a couple of very good meals on this last trip were in larger restaurants that I managed to identify. Xin Yi Jing Restaurant has proven to be elusive in an internet search, but at the nicer places there's almost always a pack of tissues emblazoned with the restaurant's name on the table. The trick is to remember to take it with when you leave. I forgot. But a photo is the next best thing, right?

Stir Fried CabbageDominic Armato

This particular lunch started with a simple, delicious broth, almost ubiquitous at the meals I've had in China over the years. And it's a good thing. When's the last time you had a simple, light broth? When's the last time you had one that was notable? These broths are so simple, but the gentle clarity of flavor these chefs bring out in their soups is something I appreciate more and more with every visit. As with this one, they're usually very light on the salt, barely seasoned at all, a clean and subtle extraction of the beast from which they're made. In this case it was beef, and a few tender pieces of the meat from which the broth had been drawn was included as well. This is a start I always welcome.

Scrambled Eggs with ShrimpDominic Armato

Though I've encountered corn before, I wouldn't call it common, so I was a little taken aback by this particular stir fry, composed of corn kernels, diced carrots and toasted pine nuts. If the broths in China are impressive, the vegetables are mindblowing. They're usually treated very minimally, but they're so fresh and exploding with flavor that it makes you feel like you're tasting them for the first time. Is it the lack of mechanized farming? Are they brought fresher to market? Is it the unique properties of the wok as a cooking vessel, or millennia of collective culinary knowledge? I don't know the answer, but I know that when it comes to meals in China, I approach the simple vegetables with the zeal I usually reserve for more featured dishes.

Fried ChickenDominic Armato

The cabbage, lightly touched with vinegar, chiles and garlic was similarly fabulous. After each taking a bite, my father and I traded looks as if to say, "Seriously? They can do this with cabbage?!" Never have I had less sexy a vegetable prepared so well. This focus on killer ingredients extends beyond vegetables, of course. Eggs also seem more vibrant to me when served in China (a lack of factory farming would seem the most logical explanation in this case), and this preparation, scrambled with shrimp, was another that was new to me. They were lightly sweetened, notably but not overly salty, and possessed of a fabulous texture that was firm yet light, and maintained a touch of that barely cooked egg flavor that one gets when they've just barely passed the point where they coagulate. The shrimp, I suspect, had been poached separately, and were a simple and effective pair. But there was no doubt which protein was the star.

Chiles with Black BeanDominic Armato

Chickens tend to be rather lean, which has its upsides and downsides. I'm on record as being less than enthused when it comes to chicken breast, but a good meaty, juicy thigh is a wonder to behold. These, by any American definition, are downright scrawny. But the upside? Higher skin to meat ratio. Which is perfect when crisp skin is the objective. Really, this dish could've been done without the meat and would have been no lesser for it. There was no coating, just lightly seasoned skin that was salty, paper thin and made delightfully crisp through whatever frying method they employed. I've seen poultry hung for a while so that the skin dries a little, after which it's fried over a wok while being constantly basted by ladlefuls of hot oil. This is speculation. I don't actually know how these particular fellows were prepared. But their skin was crisp and juicy and the meat itself was almost an afterthought.

Stir Fried Pork and SquashDominic Armato

As mentioned, some of the foods of surrounding regions have found their way into southern China, and with Hunan province bordering Guangdong to the north, I wasn't terribly surprised to see a dish very similar to one that I'd tasted at Lao Hunan just a couple of months ago, and our hosts confirmed that it was a Hunanese dish. Large whole chiles were stir fried with garlic, fermented black beans and a healthy shot of vinegar. They were tender, not terribly hot, and what surprised me wasn't their preparation so much as their natural flavor, which reminded me of Anaheim chiles. I don't remember encountering these chiles in Guangdong before, nor was their flavor something that struck me as native to the region. Was this a straight-up Hunanese dish or a Cantonese spin thereon? Were the peppers native to the area? These are the kinds of questions I wish I could ask. If anybody knows the answers, by all means, please jump in.

Fried Garlic ShrimpDominic Armato

Yet another excellent dish that, if made back in the States, would no doubt reverse the balance of meat and vegetables to its detriment. It was pork, I believe, buried beneath a pile of some manner of sliced squash, firm but tender, similar to zucchini but lighter in color, with a flavor like the summer squash we get at home, lightly sweet with a hint of spice. A wok, when properly handled, has a remarkable ability to capture vegetables in a kind of semi-raw state, as though the flavor has halfway but not completely converted to its cooked form, while the texture remains crisp and vibrant. I keep trying to do this at home, but something tells me that having 100,000 BTUs of wok burner heat at your disposal has something to do with it.

Steamed FishDominic Armato

I remember the first time I had head-on, shell-on shrimp, while visiting Lei Yue Mun in Hong Kong. At 12 or 13 years old in the late '80s, that was something of a mindbending experience. But I quickly saw the genius of it, shells fried in a blistering hot wok to make them crisp so that you could consume the entire beast -- body, tail, head, legs and all -- a sort of sweet/crunchy experience that preserved the shrimp's more interesting characteristics beyond the simple sweetness of the tail meat. This is a very common preparation that I never tire of, cooked with a dash of soy and shaoxing, a healthy amount of garlic and just a touch of chile. That first time in Lei Yue Mun, three of us consumed what must have been close to a hundred of these. Here, a dozen or so would have to do for the six of us. It made me strongly consider working Lei Yue Mun into the trip's itinerary.

Tofu in SyrupDominic Armato

Steamed fish, as with the one we had in Shanghai, is always a joy, fresh and simple and delicious. And we even got a bit of dessert, though desserts in China are perhaps the least familiar of what we're served. They don't really do dairy or cakes, at least not in my experience. So you often get sweet dishes for which a western palate has no frame of reference, like this one -- warm, silken tofu mixed with a light sugar syrup. It seems like such a strange thing, but even though it's served warm and is powerfully sweet, it still manages to come off as rather refreshing. The tofu is extremely soft, only barely holding together, and it goes down with an easy slurp, warming you all the way.

I've certainly had more elegant, more adventurous, and more impressive meals in China, but particularly after such a long time away, Xin Yi Jing really scratched the itch. Familiar flavors, familiar dishes, well-prepared... a very good reintroduction to the cuisine I've been missing for five years.

Fresh Seafood Tanks Dominic Armato

Even better, however, was the meal we had at the Zhongming Hotel. What you see here is always a good sign. Really, really fresh seafood is highly valued, and it's almost a given that more upscale hotel restaurants will have a front hall full of aquaria where, if you're so inclined, you can go to select the critters you'll eat. This isn't the wormy tank at Red Lobster. This is a fabulous assortment of fresh seafood, and what you see here is less than half of what was on display.

Stuffed Braised TofuDominic Armato

Our lunch here included some of the standards like a broth, steamed fish and pea shoots that always seem to make an appearance. But there were a few that I feel compelled to chronicle because they were new to me, or because I love them so damn much. One of the best dishes of the afternoon was a tofu dish, the likes of which I've had back in the States, but I think this may have actually been the first time I encountered it in Guangdong. Blocks of tofu that were stuffed with some kind of meat -- a sausage, perhaps? -- had been lightly fried and then braised in a viscous brown gravy. This is a dish that usually tends to be heavy and indistinct back home, but I was struck by how beautifully this particular plate was executed. The tofu maintained a perfect texture, firm but yielding, never disintegrating despite having clearly been tossed around in their preparation. The sauce, though viscous, was beautifully balanced, just slightly sweet with a bit of soy and oyster sauce, hints of ginger and green onions, and restrained enough so as to not get in the way of the tofu. I'm not a tofu fiend. It has to be a killer tofu dish to grab my attention. This one was.

Scallops with Garlic and Glass NoodlesDominic Armato

My heart leaps a little every time this dish hits the table. Setting aside that scallops, freshly shucked, cooked and served in their shells is a treat in and of itself. This preparation, which inevitably make an appearance at least once every trip, bathes the scallops in a sort of chunky garlic sauce with enough sweetness to pull out the natural sweetness of the mollusk. Underneath, glass noodles, also abundantly garlicky, a delight to slurp down along with the seafood. If you're extra lucky, though they weren't present on this pass, you'll get the coral and perhaps some of the other bits as well, delicious pieces of varying textures that are almost always removed before serving back home. I love, love, love this dish.

Glazed ChickenDominic Armato

Given the display that could rival some public aquariums up front, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more seafood, but I'm having a hard time complaining about the meat that wandered in our direction. Another chicken arrived, this one considerably meatier than the ones we were served at Xin Yi Jing, but still scrawny by American standards. This one had an almost sticky glaze that was lightly sweet and drove me absolutely insane, not because I didn't like it -- I found it delicious -- but because it had a very intense and very familiar flavor that I couldn't quite place. It was out of context; a flavor I've never had on chicken like this. And I knew that if I walked out the door without figuring it out, it would be gone forever. And so it is. And it's still driving me insane.

Vegetable JaioziDominic Armato

Gaoza, we were asked? Absolutely! Of course, I made the mistake of sounding a little too enthusiastic about it and they tried to order two plates. We managed to beg off. (Incidentally, this is how, in the past, we've ended up consuming over a dozen char siu bao apiece in one sitting. Be careful what you get excited about, or you may get three plates of them.) Still, I'm very glad we said yes, because these were some killer dumplings. The flavor was excellent, delicate and well balanced, with minced greens, and water chestnuts. The brilliance, though, was in the texture. The wrappers were succulent and pliable. Those browned edges were light and almost crunchy. Diced water chestnut gave the filling that familiar wet crispness, and the entire thing would have been a delight to eat on the texture alone even if it tasted like nothing at all.

Canton OrangesDominic Armato

Another common dessert is fruit, and while I've plowed through many a Chinese watermelon over the years, I think this was actually the first time I've been given these little fellows. The Chinese New Year decorations, set out in anticipation, were completely bedecked with the things, so I suspect this is a seasonal offering. Though a Google search didn't turn up much, our hosts referred to these as "Canton Oranges," and the closest analogue I can come up with is a clementine, except that I enjoyed these far more. They were a little less tart and a little more sweet, but not overly so. The skin had a very crisp texture and tore off easily in large chunks, releasing a huge burst of fragrant oils. The fruit was also crisp, as oranges go, each segment bursting as I bit into it. It had been a huge meal. We didn't quite finish them. The rest were packed up and I ate them on the train ride back. I could take down a dozen of these in one sitting without even thinking about it. Again, a perfect finish to a great meal. There was little at Zhongming that I hadn't tasted before, but the meal was unusually well prepared.

And that was only two of five. And those are just the lunches. On the work days. This is going to take a while.

January 23, 2012


Ubiquity Defined Dominic Armato

Every time I travel abroad, sights like this give me hives. Not because one of our nation's most notable exports is a place that serves espresso that tastes like anthracite and coffee flavored milkshakes in one quart cups (though that's a fabulous reason). Rather, it's because cities overseas look more and more like home every year, and while nobody's going to be mistaking Shanghai for Phoenix anytime soon (or ever), the neighborhoods where you could ignore the language on the signs and imagine that you're Stateside are growing by leaps and bounds.

Of course, to a certain degree, this has always been the case in Shanghai, a modern and internationally-influenced metropolis on the shores of what was, until recently, a highly insular country -- and a city that, for me, has always been a frustratingly short layover rather than an actual destination. Though I've spent plenty of time in Pudong International Airport, this past trip was the first time I managed to get into the city proper. The evening connection was looking just a little too tight. We'd need to spend the night. And with the next day set aside as a free day to rest and prepare for work, why not schedule the second leg of our flight to Hong Kong for later in the day and explore Shanghai a bit? And so, with just shy of 24 hours on the ground in a city I've always wanted to visit, the question became how much could I and what would I cram in.

Salted ChickenDominic Armato

A 9:30 PM hotel arrival, even on a Saturday night, limited our dinner options somewhat, so I figured a good start would be to shoot for a taste of classic Shanghai at the original Ji Shi restaurant, more colloquially referred to and even listed on their street sign as "Old Jesse." Though other locations have spread throughout the city, some offering highly contemporary takes on the local cuisine, scuttlebutt is that the original is both the most classic and by far the best, so that's where we landed. Squirmed might actually be a more appropriate verb. From street level you descend into a narrow storefront, a good six feet below ground level, into a room that can’t be more than 10' x 10', yet seated 20 on this particular evening (there are other floors above that we didn't see). Though subterranean, it's well-appointed, with a translated and easily approachable menu that makes it easy for those of us who neither look nor (sadly) speak the part.

Beef TendonDominic Armato

We started with Ji Shi's salted chicken, marinated, cooked (poached?), chilled and then, in typical Chinese fashion, sliced with little to no regard for where the bones are located. I'm always amazed by the chickens in China, so lean and flavorful. It's yet another stunning example of how we've completely ruined our livestock. In any case, this chicken was very lightly seasoned, perhaps a touch of shaoxing and an ample but not overpowering amount of salt. What it tasted like was chicken, and though a little tougher than similar preparations that I've enjoyed more, it was a fine start. We moved on to the spicy beef tendon, sliced thick, slightly sweet with a little bit of chile warmth, dressed with cilantro and toasted peanuts. Chinese food tends to be highly texture-conscious, and though the flavor was lovely, what grabbed me was the pleasant chewiness of the tendon, cut thick enough to provide some real bite, but cooked enough that it yielded to active chewing. I really dug it.

Fried BambooDominic Armato

I was surprised to discover that the fried bamboo was a dish I've had before, many times in fact, at Peking Garden in Hong Kong. While I find these days that Peking Garden, one of our old standbys, is no longer to my taste (more on this shortly), this is one dish where I prefer the Maxim Group's contemporary take. Ji Shi's version is delicious, bamboo shoots fried to achieve a light golden color, sweet flavor and tender bite, buried in a pile of crispy fried greens (salt cabbage?). It's a texture and flavor contrast that has an addictive, almost snacky character. On the other hand, the additions of fried shredded conpoy (dried scallop) and candied walnuts in the version to which I'm accustomed take the dish over the top, and whether or Ji Shi's version is more traditional -- I really don't know -- I found myself pining for the other.

Pork Belly in Brown SauceDominic Armato

Ji Shi's highly regarded braised pork belly in brown sauce, however, elicits no comparisons to others, because as far as I'm concerned this is basically as good as it gets. Oh, sure, there are infinite variations on the premise, but none I enjoy more. It is, I believe, a straight-up traditional Hong Shao Rou, or red-cooked pork, but in Ji Shi's version the "brown sauce" is an unusually deep and complex (though no less sweet) sauce, with heavy caramel flavor, predominantly scented with star anise. The texture of the pork shoots the gap between firm and gelatinous, the fatty parts melting away in the mouth while the meatier bits keep your jaw from feeling superfluous. I've had this dish a lot, and though those whose preferences shy away from the sweeter end of the spectrum may find it lacking, I thought it was a really superlative version, among the best I've tasted.

Steamed FishDominic Armato

I'd also heard good things about the steamed perch, but our server's recommendation took us to a different fish instead. I don't know what it was, but it was predictably delicious. This is a simple prep that I never tire of, a whole fresh fish steamed and doused with a mix of soy sauce, shaoxing, sesame oil, rock sugar and aromatics, in this case just scallions. The fish's flesh was shockingly moist, bordering on downright juicy, and the sauce was mellow but none lacking in flavor. Simple, traditional and beautifully executed. It being a chilly winter night, we also had soup on the brain. Though I don't recall the name of the chicken soup we ordered, I probably should have gathered from the price that I was ordering more than a simple cup of broth for two. Rather, this one took the phrase "a chicken in every pot" to a literal level, as we were served a whole chicken in a giant tureen, submerged in a simple chicken broth spiked with goji berries. Though the chicken itself was unseasoned and halfway spent, having sacrificed its flavor to the soup, the broth was delightful, sporting a vibrant yellow color and tasting simply of chicken with only the slightest hint of sweetness from the berries. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me in China is the color, flavor and clarity of their beautiful broths, so simple and yet so stunningly good. Though a western palate may expect more salt, this was no exception. I've had chicken broths I've enjoyed more, but this was expertly prepared.

Chicken Soup Dominic Armato

Though the restaurant was cramped and raucous when we entered at 10:00, it was completely deserted except for a couple of staff members who seemed anxious for us to leave when we did just that around 11:30. We climbed into a taxi and headed back to get some rest. Though I wouldn't list the meal among my favorites of the trip, Ji Shi had provided a fine start and set the table for the deluge to come.

Lin Long Fang's MenuDominic Armato

The next morning brought an early start and a subway trek into a Shanghai residential neighborhood in search of a local foodstuff that has inspired more recent food nerd obsession than perhaps any of China's culinary exports. My devotion to xiao long bao (aka soup dumplings) has already been documented, and an opportunity to sample some in close proximity to their birthplace makes for the kind of anticipation that keeps people like me awake at night. Or maybe that was the jetlag. In any case, my target was Lin Long Fang, called out by Jing Theory and E*ting The World, and further backed up by pal TonyC of SinoSoul as one of the finest and most consistent spots in Shanghai for XLB. The subway was a breeze. Even if I weren't good with maps, Google Maps on a smartphone makes navigating the streets trivial. The menu, on the other hand, presented something of a problem for somebody who can't even speak Mandarin, much less read it. I would like to take this opportunity to once again offer my undying loyalty, devotion and a sizable portion of my pocketbook to the first person who develops a smartphone app that will allow you to photograph and instantly translate menus written in non-Roman characters. But I have to say, Twitter and TonyC filled in beautifully for the software of my dreams. Two minutes later, I knew which placards to point to, and my order was handed off to the kitchen.

Folded To OrderDominic Armato

The kitchen, or at least the displayed portion thereof, is right next to the register (it's a tiny place), a small table partially separated from the dining area by a single pane of glass and manned at this early hour (7:30 or so) by a small staff of young hands, folding every dumpling to order and placing them in bamboo steamers by the dozen before shipping them to the back room to cook. From there, it's just a few steps to the dining area, where I imagine the six seat tables make for something of a communal dining experience once the lunchtime crowds start to roll in, but which was largely deserted at this early breakfast hour. We took a seat, grabbed a pair of chopsticks off a crock on the table, and had a taste of the shredded ginger -- ordered separately -- in a sweet and vinegary light syrup, a departure from the chinkiang vinegar to which I'm accustomed. And in less than ten minutes, our xiao long bao arrived in a cloud of steam.

Shredded GingerDominic Armato

For the uninitiated, xiao long bao are a stunning example of a highly evolved foodstuff, where a scant handful of ingredients are transformed through creativity and precise technique into a sophisticated, refined and absurdly delicious dish. Technically a bun owing to the wrapper's composition, even if they more closely resemble dumplings in practice, xiao long bao's most notable feature is that they're filled with both solid and liquid filling. The filling, when folded, includes chilled pork aspic that liquefies when steamed, such that biting into a cooked bun yields both meat -- most often pork and possibly crab -- and a gush of clear, luscious pork broth. Of course, when in China, biting seems far less prevalent than nipping, sipping, then dipping and eating the rest once the soup has been drained. But speaking personally, for me there's nothing like that burst of hot soup when one of these fellows explodes in your mouth, and though caution is advised, I'll risk scalding myself every time, particularly when they're this amazing.

Xiao Long BaoDominic Armato

Given the amount of steam billowing out of the basket, I thought it best, given my preferences when it comes to eating these fellows, to give them a minute or two before diving in. Two minutes might as well have been two hours. Lin Long Fang's are beautifully constructed, perhaps not with the almost mechanical perfection of Din Tai Fung's, but thin and light, appropriately droopy and heavily laden with soup; soup possessed of a beautiful, clean and clear pork flavor, just fatty enough to provide a little lusciousness without getting heavy. The wrapper, delicate and delightful. The pork filling, tender and moist. And the ginger in sweet syrup, though new to me, has supplanted chinkiang vinegar as my favored condiment. I've had scant few XLB of this caliber, and while stylistic choices make me reluctant to call one the best, I think I'm okay with calling Lin Long Fang's my favorite.

Sag Factor Dominic Armato

From the pork only version, we moved on to the pork and crab. I've never been satisfied with the combination -- the crab has always struck me as too subtle -- until now. And though it was tempting to throw caution to the wind and order a third basket of dumplings filled completely with crab, I decided to hold off given our lunch plans. Best part? A dozen pork XLB came in at a whopping $1.58. I could have happily sat there all day, gorging on every kind of XLB on the menu for a pittance. But Sipalou Lu called.

Qiang BingDominic Armato

Consensus among those who know what they're talking about seems to be that the street food scene in Shanghai has nosedived in recent years. The "cleanup" that proceeded the 2010 Expo included gentrification that eliminated some of the most popular spots for roadside grub, and lamentations that the old Shanghai has become even harder to find are numerous. While I'm in no position to speak firsthand, I do know that researching spots for street food in Shanghai led to an awful lot of outdated dead ends until TonyC came to the rescue again with the recommendation of Sipalou Lu. Old Shanghai indeed, bustling foot traffic crowding out the occasional car, rough around the edges and nothing taller than three stories, this stretch of the street east of the City God Temple and just north of Fu Xing Dong Lu, though nestled amongst the skyscrapers, has remained entirely untouched by gentrification, and is among the more vibrant and exciting places -- at least for a food nerd -- that I've visited in China.

Low-Tech CookeryDominic Armato

We started on Sipalou Lu proper, which didn't seem to be operating at full strength. I suspect the timing of our visit, both early in the morning and on an especially frosty winter day, meant that we didn't catch it at its best. Still, there were a number of stands up and running, and the first thing I sampled was an item called, I believe, qiang bing (somebody please correct me if I've missed this one), a large, bready pancake stuffed with green onions. I can't say this was an exciting start, though I suspect it was more the fault of the food's preparation than its inherent nature. Rule number one for street food is that you ought to be watching it cooked right in front of you, and I have no idea how long these had been sitting there. Given their lukewarm temperature and soggy consistency, I suspect a while. The flavor wasn't unenjoyable, but I'm sure these were nowhere near their best.

Jian BingDominic Armato

I wouldn't make the same mistake twice. My next item was one made to order, a thin, rolled egg crepe called jian bing, which was being prepared by no fewer than four vendors on the three block stretch we walked. The fellow preparing mine was cooking on an empty, rusted drum filled with burning wood and topped with a flat griddle, a bucket of thick batter at one side and a tray of fresh ingredients at the other. He started by spreading a ladleful of the batter around his cooking surface and letting it rest for a few moments before cracking an egg over the top and gently beating and spreading it around. After loosening the pancake from the griddle, he proceeded to add other ingredients... a smear of bean paste, a dash of chile sauce, a sprinkling of minced garlic and cilantro... before laying on a crisply fried sheet of bean curd, folding the crepe over three or four times, slicing it down the middle and stacking the two halves on top of each other. He wrapped it in plastic, I paid my seven yuan, and walked down the street crunching away. THIS particular item, unlike the qiang bing, was completely fabulous. It was everything that makes for great street food, a vibrant combination of flavors and textures, hot and crisp and in your mouth seconds after leaving the fire. Between this, nearly two dozen XLB and a large, thick onion pancake I was nearing capacity and fearing for my lunchtime appetite, else I would have tried two more vendors to compare. Instead, I thought it best to call a win a win and move on.

EggsDominic Armato

Sadly, this was all the street food I got. These vendors rotate what they offer throughout the day, and we were still a couple of hours from lunchtime, so the only other offering I located was youtiao, the large sticks of fried bread that I just wasn't prepared for at that point. So instead we headed west into the surrounding neighborhood, and came upon a really stunning street market area, probably not dissimilar to countless others around the city but still breathtaking to somebody who only sees such things when traveling abroad. The very first stand I encountered? Eggs. How many varieties? I don't know... eight? Nine? Ten? And we're not talking about the difference between large, extra large and jumbo, here. Different sizes, different colors, different birds... I could visit a dozen markets in Phoenix and not see the variety of this one ramshackle roadside stand in a random neighborhood in Shanghai. The produce, predictably, wasn't as varied (after all, they're pretty much cooking only one cuisine over there), but criminy, I'd kill for vegetables this crisp and fresh. Seafood still swimming, chickens and ducks still wandering around, ready for a quick roadside slaughter... I'm sure most if not all of what I saw was on the farm just a few hours prior.

ButcherDominic Armato

Though it's somewhat less exciting than seeing all of these stands crowded onto the sidewalk, there's an indoor market in the vicinity as well. I should've noted its exact location as it's easy to miss (just follow the crowds), small entrances on four sides of the block opening into a dark, dingy but impressive collection of stands, jam-packed with produce, meats and fish of every kind. Naturally, they all specialize. Produce stands sell produce. Fishmongers sell fish. Butchers sell meat, usually just from one animal. Others may specialize in eggs, cured meats, pickled vegetables, fresh noodles... all narrow categories overseen by folks who make a living working just with that specialty. THIS is the way to shop for food, the purveyors more closely connected to their products and in a better position to offer you the best, and all of them packed into close proximity. Aside from needing to pay three or four times to get everything on your list, it's no less convenient than a supermarket, yet it provides all of the obvious advantages. Even the best permanent markets I've seen in the States barely hold a candle to this random Shanghai neighborhood market, and so few cities back home have them. How did we get away from this? How did we lose this wisdom? It's as infuriating as it is exciting, a feeling that would color all of my market visits throughout the trip. We wandered for a couple of hours, marveling at what we saw. And got hungry. Time for lunch.

Crab, Crab, Crab and Crab Dominic Armato

Hairy crab is a local delicacy this time of year, and I made a goal of gorging on it before skipping town. In truth, fall is more the time of year for such an endeavor, but I was assured that we'd catch the tail end of the season, and I'd read some good things about Xinguang restaurant, which offers lengthy set menus centered around these little fellows. What Xinguang does when hairy crabs aren't in season, I have no idea. But hairy or otherwise, crabs are such a high-maintenance food that I'd gladly take any opportunity to try seven different preparations thereof in one sitting.

Thick Crab SoupDominic Armato

The first four dishes were a quick progression of largely unadulterated crab meat, starting with the claws and moving inward. The first, a pile of claw meat, struck me as disappointingly dry, but was served with two sauces, chinkiang vinegar and an extremely sweet, almost syrupy soy infused with ginger and also, I believe, touched with some vinegar. These helped to moisten it a bit as well as bring out the flavor. I found the leg meat much more satisfying, stir fried with fresh asparagus, lightly glazed and possessing the moisture that the claws lacked. I started to swoon when we got to the body, all of the tiny flakes of meat that those back home would refer to as backfin, again stir fried and seasoned with I don't know what, but definitely including a touch of mustard -- by which I don't mean prepared mustard seed, but naturally the crab's yellow hepatopancreas -- lending it a slightly funky flavor that was still ruled by the sweetness of the meat. The fourth iteration fully brought the funk, comprised solely of the mustard stir fried with flat bean noodles, rich and almost eggy, thick and sticky and tasting of all the parts of the crab most folks back home would discard. For me, it needed a touch of the sweet ginger vinegar to cut it, but with that minor adjustment, it was still fabulously decadent and in the running with the backfin for my favorite of the meal.

Noodles with CrabDominic Armato

Simple, almost unadulterated crab out of the way, we moved on to other dishes. First was a thickened crab soup that -- before I accidentally dusted it with about four times the amount of white pepper I would have liked -- possessed a mellow but full flavor, flecked with crabmeat and topped with a smattering of cilantro. Next were noodles, topped with another crab mixture, that satisfied even if it was one of the weaker dishes of the bunch. The crab was predictably lovely, but the noodles were quite ordinary. The crab deserved better. Our final dish was another soup, this one a clear broth with a very pronounced green onion or chive flavor, within which were swimming small wontons filled with seasoned crab meat. It was a light and delicate finish to a fine meal, and a note on which I was prepared to happily exit until we were also presented with a tea that I loved. It was an extremely dark brown, very sweet, and bursting with more ginger flavor than I would have thought it possible to cram into one little cup. I'd love to know how this stuff was made so I can do it at home.

Crab Dumpling SoupDominic Armato

I've often said that between the usually prohibitive expense and the fact that it's a royal pain to get it out of the shell, I've never eaten my fill of crab. I doubt I would have arrived there had it not been for the morning's exploits, but Xinguang was a first for me in this regard. Still, I have mixed feelings about the place. With the exception of the noodles, the preparations were very well done, but the product inspired some doubts. I felt the crab itself was lacking in some cases. No doubt hairy crab quality runs the gamut, and to be fair, as mentioned, this was right at the end of the season, but still... good as it was, I find it difficult to believe that this was what all the fuss is about. Add to this that our meal was in the neighborhood of $85/pp, and particularly when measured against the joy of $1.50/dozen xiao long bao, price performance is a legitimate question. Still, it's a rare treat to have so much crab in so many forms without getting near a shell, and on that basis I think it's a worthwhile endeavor.

Out of time already? Frustratingly, after a brief stop at the nearby First Food Store (meh...) and a roadside cart for a dessert of fresh mangosteen, it was time to return to the hotel, check out and head for the airport. To leave so soon after arriving in an exciting place is a difficult thing to do, and I hope to return someday. The good news is that the trip was barely getting started...

Old Jesse (Ji Shi)
41 Tianping Lu
Shanghai, China
Lin Long Fang
10 Jianguo Dong Lu
Shanghai, China
Xinguang Jiu Jia
512 Tianjin Lu
Shanghai, China

January 18, 2012

Homeward Bound

No! Not yet! Dominic Armato

It's been nearly two weeks, and though I'm currently somewhere over the Pacific inside this silver cigar (with apologies to Lilian Morrison), I wish it was my family en route to me rather than the other way around. I crammed as much as I possibly could into this trip, trying to make sure I was out and about every moment I wasn't working or sleeping, and sleeping less than I probably should have. But there's just too much. I barely got halfway through my critical list, to say nothing of the things I really would have liked to have hit, even despite the amount of ground I covered (60+ miles just in the past four days, according to the pedometer).

So while this trip has me especially excited to get writing, I confess that I'm a little unsure of where to start. A quick count indicates that I have thirty something restaurants to write about, not to mention markets and hordes of snacks and bits of street food. Give me a couple of days to decompress, get a little rest and collect my thoughts, and we'll get this ball rolling.

If you'll excuse me, I have a date with Photoshop...