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By Lori Midson
Do you remember your first Chinese meal? Think back to your introduction to egg rolls and the virgin sting of soy sauce on your tongue. Did they feel like foreign foods to you then? Did the words wonton, chow mein and moo goo gai pan feel as strange in your mouth as the water chestnut, rice noodle or prawn? Did everything taste of mysterious shores and alien area codes, of communism, of Zen Buddhist calm?
1400 Arapahoe St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Fried dumplings: $5.95
Melon soup with meat: $8.95
Seafood porridge: $9.95
Abalone in oyster sauce: $9.95
Deep-fried chicken (after 9 p.m.): $4.95
Prawns with walnut (after 9 p.m.): 5.95
Lobster salad: market price
Near as I can remember, my first experience with Far East cuisine -- or what used to pass for it in this country -- started with a ninth-birthday meal at a restaurant (now gone, I think) called Ng's in Rochester, New York. My family was big on meals out to celebrate special days like birthdays and anniversaries, and whoever's special day it was got to pick the restaurant. My parents usually went with solid American steak-and-seafood kinds of places. My younger brother picked McDonald's and Burger King until he was old enough to understand the lure of a Red Lobster.
For me, it was Ng's. Even back then, in those white-bread, beans-n-weenies suburbs where Chinese was the most daring international cuisine available, I had a low-grade fascination with the power of exotic foods. They were a mystery, with names I didn't understand and strange, transportive qualities (or so I thought). Whenever I ordered something at Ng's, my parents would arch their eyebrows and ask me, "Are you sure that's what you want?" And when I was done, someone would always inquire, "So, did you actually like that?"
And that's power. No one ever asked me what I wanted for dinner at home, or how I'd enjoyed something from the drive-through. The mere fact that they were asking meant I was getting something different, strange and special.
Trouble was, no matter what I ordered at Ng's -- no matter how difficult it was to pronounce, how far toward the back of the menu it was located or how much my parents questioned me -- it was never strange enough. Lo mein was just dirty spaghetti, sesame chicken a McNugget that had suffered some horrible industrial accident. The shrimp were still shrimp, even if they were cloaked in some sort of gummy sludge that was allegedly a lobster sauce. And sure, a slice of water chestnut was something I couldn't get just anywhere, but those slices would inevitably end up stacked on the corner of my plate because, exotic or no, I still thought they were gross.
In the end, every dish at Ng's tasted like plain old food to me -- gussied up a little, maybe, but when you dress a mouse up as an elephant, underneath it's still a mouse. I don't know what I was expecting, really, beyond that notion of tasting something "foreign," but even today, Chinese food (as eaten by non-Asian Americans at restaurants catering to a mostly Western clientele) has about as much relation to true Chinese cooking as a marshmallow does to a scallop. And while its preparation and presentation have changed little, other native cuisines -- French, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Indian, Japanese and Brazilian -- have surged forward, fighting for their moment in the spotlight of sociological haute cuisine.
I was thinking about all of this -- about Ng's and foodies and the assimilation of food as culture -- while sitting at a big, round table in the crowded, noisy, L-shaped dining room of Ocean City Restaurant, staring suspiciously at the plate of sliced pigs' ears as it made its wobbling way toward me on the lazy Susan.
It seemed so harmless, what was on that plate: a pale crimson pile with a few strips of what looked like some kind of vegetable -- julienne celery, maybe, or the root of something unfamiliar -- under a thin sauce speckled with crushed red-chile flakes. I told myself that this was what I'd been looking for all those years ago as I clumsily transferred a few pieces from the serving plate to my own with chopsticks. This was something truly foreign, something strange, something to terrify your average round-eyed diner.
This dinner was something special. Arranged by a friend and his wife who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, it was an opportunity to eat "real" Chinese food -- things normally only available to those who can decipher the Day-Glo squiggles that run as elegantly as falling water down the black dry-erase boards and yellow construction-paper menus tacked up on the dining-room wall. Knowing that I have this wild streak running through me -- this nose for sniffing out little places operating on the fringes of the restaurant community, this taste for the bizarre -- my friend had asked if I'd be interested in joining his group. A restaurateur himself, he assured me that Ocean City, which is open until midnight every night of the week, is where servers and kitchen crews from other Asian restaurants come for dinner after their own places shut down, and that you can sometimes go a whole night without hearing a single word of English spoken in the dining room. It would be nothing formal, just him and his wife and a couple of local chefs with whom I have a passing acquaintance, and did I want to tag along?
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