It began as a love affair: this young, farm boy, marooned in that middle-American food dessert, first discovering the exquisite culinary exotica that was Chinese food in the 1970s. And not just any kind Chinese food, mind you. This was utility Chinese, dirty Chinese, the lowest of the low: the product of a central-Missouri chop suey joint that offered what even then was a compulsory set list of all-time greatest Chinese-American hits. Beef with broccoli. Sweet and sour chicken the color of Pepto-Bismol. Moo shoo pork. However pedestrian and laughably commonplace these dishes might now seem, they represented true gastronomic esoterica in a time and place when liberating the lone, maraschino cherry from a can of Libby’s fruit cocktail represented culinary high adventure. The novelty of jarred baby corn, the exhilarating texture of a canned water chestnut, these were, for this young lad, articles of liberation from the tyranny of the hamburger, from the despotism of the chicken fried steak.
My love of American Chinese food didn’t end with childhood. There were my college days, smoke-addled, don’t-Bogart-that-joint days of youthful ebullience and skullduggery, when procuring Styrofoam clamshells of shrimp fried rice at three in the morning was tantamount to finding one’s very own salvation in the holy grail of stoner gastronomy. To stumble back from five-dollar-pitcher-night and into the I’ve-been-waiting-for-you embrace of a carton of cold General Tso’s chicken was to fully and truly know culinary love. This much I knew.
But after college, things changed. Food changed. I changed. It was now the middle-90s, and the dominance and sheer ubiquity of American-styled Chinese food was suddenly (if wholly successfully) challenged by the emergence of other, far more invigorated Asian cuisines. Laotian. Vietnamese. Thai. These were authentic and not dumbed-down-for-the-masses foodways, whose always-bold, always-engaging flavor profiles suddenly exposed American Chinese food for the culinary flim-flam man it had always been. Dirty Chinese food fled white neighborhoods. It went underground. It embarked on a kind of inverted gastronomic diaspora, making its way into America’s poorest cities, our most blighted of neighborhoods, where it would flourish, almost predatory in its practices of selling the basest of poorly-sourced, poorly-prepared ingredients to people too disenfranchised—as citizens, as eaters—to ever question the lucky gift of a hot meal.
I stopped eating dirty Chinese. I stopped thinking about it. Ever. Because there was far, far too much to appreciate in real and authentic Chinese cooking to ever need cast a backwards glance to the bad old days of Kung Pao chicken. To dine on, say, Cantonese dim sum was to now touch the rosetta stone of culinary wonder: char sui baau (barbecued pork bun), fung zau (chicken feet), char siu (black-roasted spare ribs), each mind-blowing in the extraordinary complexity of its simplicity, if you get me in that what’s-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping, zen koan kind of way, yo. To later be lucky enough to personally spend several hours in a kitchen with legendary Szechuan chef, Peter Chang (as I did last January), watching him cook in perfect silence, was to witness the most profound culinary wizardry I’ve yet seen, and by the experience, I was forever changed. I could never again go back to dirty Chinese. As a cuisine, it was suddenly, and irrevocably, a bridge too far.
So imagine my reaction when a fellow food professional and neighbor recently asked me if I had ever tried the dirty Chinese place up the street from where we live. Imagine me nonplussed while choking on my own indignation. Image me drowning in my own bile. Imagine me going pink in the face on my own spluttering rage. When did finally regain my ability to speak, I unleashed upon this man a tirade of epic proportions, a withering and invective-filled verbal assault against all I found heretical and worthy of hating in dirty Chinese: its aim-in-a-general-direction-and-fire approach to culinary technique; the one-size-fits-all ubiquity in its use corn starch as a thickening agent in all of its sauces; the way it forever insists on diminishing the collective culinary IQs of its eaters, a la American fast food, by offering two and only two flavor profiles in its cuisine, fat and salt; its incredibly short-sighted and deeply stupid decision to forsake (publically, at least, on its menus) the many charms, and invaluable gifts, of MSG. My list of grievances went on and on. And when I had finished my rant, my friend simply nodded and smiled, then repeated his original question: had I tried the dirty Chinese place up the street? They were the same words, spoken in the same order, sure, but they now asked something else entirely. They asked: if you haven’t eaten dirty Chinese in twenty years, then how the fuck could you possibly know what you’re talking about.
A hit. A very palpable hit.
So I went. I ate at Asian Wok. The place he had mentioned. Because I had been called out on my bullshit. Because I didn’t know what I was talking about, because my distance from my subject was too great. Because my industry friend was right.
Asian Wok occupies the unmistakable old bones of former Little Tavern restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria North, and it bills itself as “authentic” Hunan and Szechuan Cuisine—and sushi, of course. Of course, sushi. It has the faded and back-lit picture menu of house specialties hanging above the cash register that we’ve all come to love and expect, and it boasts a farewell tour-sized menu of every hit in the Chinese American playbook. Crab rangoon. Egg foo young. Ocean treasure soup. It’s got them all.
I went for lunch. I was friendly. I was nice. I smiled. I asked the lady behind the counter what I should eat, what the cook in the open kitchen might really want to cook for me, and she suggested Curry Chicken. I balked. This was unexpected, because the use of yellow curry in Chinese cooking is typically Cantonese. Not Hunan. Not Szechuan. Not in sushi. Curry was a culinary curve ball at which I compelled to swing. Of course I wanted a curry. So I sat at a table and waited. What arrived moments later was everything I had hitherto dreaded: a Styrofoam clamshell packed with American Chinese food. On one side of the clamshell: my curry chicken. On the other: steamed white rice. Gobs of the stuff. The contempt I felt for this food was reflexive and, well, entirely misplaced. Because I hadn’t actually tasted the dish yet, had I? I hadn’t evaluated it with anything approaching clinical dispassion or a critical eye. Instead, I had done the stupid thing. I had gone straight to hate. And this was patently unfair to the cook of Asian Wok. That I would outright dismiss his better efforts to prepare a delicious lunch for me without first trying the dish was a food crime in the extreme. I was the problem. I was the food snob with a chip on my shoulder. So I took up my plastic fork and poked around my food for a better glimpse into my curry. True, the ratio of vegetables to protein suggested a cook deeply mindful of his food-cost margins. True, the chop of vegetables suggested someone in the kitchen might have skipped one too many Knife Skill classes at culinary school. True, the application of cooking oil might have been a wee bit heavy handed. But when I actually put the food in my mouth, when I remembered to concentrate on flavor, when I remembered to chew, what I tasted was…good. The chicken had been perfectly cooked (food pornographers note: succulent), and the curry struck at perfect equipoise among milky and acidic and hot. The on-my-table red pepper paste I added to the mix only heightened this interplay of flavors. That I now found myself really and truly enjoying my food raised more questions than answers.
Why had I not allowed this American Chinese food to ever be its own entity, its own thing, unfettered and unbeholden to so-called “authenticity,” as I had Italian red sauce joints in Chicago and New York? Why could I not celebrate a population coopting and changing Asian cuisine the way I now celebrate the African-American population of New Orleans and how they've transformed the food of Chinese railroad workers into their own—and profoundly unique—yaka mein? Why could I not pull my head out of my own ass long enough to see that $6.75 had bought me what was easily two pounds of hot, freshly-prepared food, and that every other patron of Asian Wok—roofers, landscapers, house painters—understood the need for inexpensive, delicious, and calorically-dense food to drive their day’s labor, which was infinitely more productive than writing food snark at home on their MacBook Pro? After all, American Chinese has never, ever pretended to be something it’s not. It’s never fetishized itself. It’s never used words like local or seasonal or artisanal when talking about itself. It’s never grown a beard or ordered Warby-Parker black rims off the internet. It’s never done anything as insidious as have a cartoon king or a laughing clown pimp ammonia-bleached beef pucks tainted with bovine fecal matter to millions upon millions of unsuspecting American schoolchildren. It’s only committed the crime of being itself: that tired old war-horse of Pan Asian cuisine that succeeds in the daily feeding of a laudable percentage of America’s none-too-flush but still-very-hungry masses.
My epiphany, there at the Asian Wok table, was an all-too-familiar refrain in my life: the problem wasn’t the food; the problem was me. I can forgive American Chinese its sins: the corn starch, the culinary purgatory of a never-changing menu. I can only hope it can forgive mine.