Ahead by a Nose
It was the smell of the place that got me. That warm, salty, enveloping, fried-pork-and-soy-sauce smell that spun through the small, squared-off dining room like a fog, like smells do in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons -- turning into fingers and tickling the duck or bear or whatever right under the nose, then carrying them along, floating, to the punchline.
Think back to the Chinese restaurants of your youth, wherever it was spent. The Lotus Room, Mott Street, the San Francisco waterfront. Boise -- doesn't matter. Close your eyes and try to remember what Chinese restaurants were like when they were something new and special, when everything was red lacquer, gold dragons and surprises.
They have a smell, those memories, and back then, anyone could have recognized a Chinese restaurant blindfolded -- stepping though the door was like entering an alien world of the senses. A seductive sweet-and-sour mystery odor filled the room like water in an aquarium, with clouds of teriyaki and smoked-duck smells as strange and cloying as opium. At least that's how I remember it.
I'd sometimes wondered whatever happened to that smell, because you don't find it so much in today's slouching strip-mall delivery joints and sterile, high-gloss, new-urbanist Asian bistros. At best, these smell like nothing and floor polish. At worst, like low tide. But then I walked into Crazy Asian Cafe, which smelled just like the Chinese restaurant of my memory, and it was enough to stand me up like a hunting dog on point. I'd come in for dumplings and maybe a Vietnamese coffee, running just ahead of the rain, but ended up staying for a late lunch. When I sat down, I got the last table in the house -- pressed up against the wall, one mote off to the edge of the roiling lunch rush. By the time I was ready to leave, I was the only one there.
Crazy Asian has been holding down this corner of Washington Park for five years. It started out as Stir Crazy until some trademark spat put an end to that, then switched to Crazy Asian -- a name so weird it's like calling a tapas place the Cockeyed Spaniard or an Irish pub Psycho Mick's. But the name wasn't Crazy Asian's only problem. Back in 1999, it must have seemed like a great idea to open an Asian joint in this neighborhood -- full of people with expendable income and adventurous tastes but lacking in good eateries -- because two more showed up just down the street about the same time. The first was Swing Thai, a quick stumble down Alameda Avenue, and then came Thai Basil, known for its blazing curries and Pier 1 decor. While the two Thais have since extended their reach with sister restaurants in the 'burbs and beyond, Crazy Asian has remained a true independent, a single-outpost family-run spot that exists entirely to service its Wash Park neighbors, weekend dog-walkers and anyone else who happens to wander by and wants to get out of the rain.
On a Saturday afternoon, the dozen-odd tables filled and emptied quickly with regulars and friends of the house. There was takeout business being handled by the front door, deliveries (covering only a three-mile radius these days) going out the back, and one waitress on the floor who didn't seem to even touch her pad when she took orders. She nodded, smiled and said "good, good" no matter what anyone asked for, then dodged back into the kitchen to bring them Chinese casseroles, rice plates, and huge bowls of Vietnamese noodles topped with charred chicken and peanuts.
This was my first time at Crazy Asian, but I still got the smile, the nod. I ordered my dumplings, some hot-and-sour san dong soup, skipped the coffee in favor of green tea. "Good, good," said the waitress. Then, running my finger down the long columns of the mutt Chinese/Viet/Thai/Japanese menu (not fusion, but with each national cuisine kept in its proper place, rubbing elbows, but never ingredients, with its geographical neighbors), I picked sweet-and-sour chicken. A coward's choice, sure -- least inventive, most overplayed. But the dish is also a benchmark for any East-leaning galley, and I was curious how the kitchen would handle the worst of round-eye Chinese before I took a swing at some of the more interesting diversions.
The waitress nodded, made a single line on her pad, and said "good, very quick" in what would turn out to be a wild understatement. Less than a minute later, she was back with tea and my soup, a broth that was warming but not spicy, with mandolin-cut carrots, bobbing wood-ear mushrooms, strips of bamboo fresh enough that they hadn't become waterlogged, and bits of tofu crowding the edges of the bowl.
Then she was gone again, on the other side of the room faster than I could blink, balancing plates and bowls of rice. The tables were turning fast, but I didn't feel hurried. Still drinking in the smell of the space and digging its midtown casualness -- the brick and exposed lighting tracks in the ceiling, the corrugated tin risers above the long windows that gave Crazy Asian its Quonset hut/Thai beach-bar feel, the anachronistic Southwestern rain-dancer iron art -- I poked at my soup, snatching out the mushrooms (just because I don't like them, not because there was anything wrong with them) and drinking the broth in long slurps. Just playing with my dong, to stretch a joke, and waiting for lunch to be served.
It took five minutes, maybe less. The balance of my order was up so quick I forgot to check my watch -- and this with a full house, which would be impressive anywhere, doubly so here. I wondered how many cooks Crazy Asian had in the kitchen and what kind of weird wok-sprint training they'd gone through that made them capable of banging out checks so fast, or whether it was all being done by Chinese food-making robots: the Daewoo Industries Kung Pao 3000.
The sweet-and-sour sauce was terrible, but that's almost to be expected these days -- at least it's certainly more the rule than the exception. It was thin, the color of melted neon, and tasted like lollipop glaze. But the chicken, which hit my table heavily battered, golden brown and still steaming hot from the fryers, was good enough that it didn't need sauce. You might think that there's not much to breading chunks of chicken and dunking them in hot oil, and there's not. But you also have to wonder how so many restaurants can botch everything about sweet-and-sour chicken so badly. I've had the chicken greasy (which generally means everything else on the menu will be the same), and I've had it fried so hot and long that it arrives just this side of charcoal. I've had bird that's tasteless and mushy, in bits too small and too large. I've seen fried and battered chicken screwed up in just about every way possible within the confines of conventional kitchen physics, and every time, it suggests the same violence being done to everything else on offer. Bad sweet-and-sour chicken means bad Imperial shrimp, means bad mu shu, kung pao and General Tso's.
And while there's no ironclad guarantee that a kitchen that makes good sweet-and-sour chicken will do right by anything else, it's a step in the right direction. The chicken at Crazy Asian proved a dependable benchmark; it was just fine, as was almost everything that followed. The dumplings (pot stickers, actually) came four to an order, big as a little kid's fist, blistered and crisp on the outside and filled with onion-spiked porky goodness. While traipsing hungrily through the less-visited quarters of the menu on other, later visits -- when the small restaurant was equally crowded, getting hit in waves, deserted in between -- I found the Singapore noodles in brown sauce, meekly spiced with curry, then scallops and snow peas in a pearly-white sake sauce that would've been more at home on one of those nouveau-fusion menus at $22.95 for a puny portion. Here it was half that for a serving large enough to endanger the shellfish beds -- and even with the unusual inclusion of sliced zucchini gone soft in the steamer and mushy in the sauce, it was a good dish.
Crazy Asian's kitchen is at its best (and at its most wildly generous) when handling sea creatures. It offers monster-sized scallops, sliced, with shrimp, folds of fake crab and a whole battered fish fillet buried in a slew of Chinese cabbage and assorted greenery, all bathing in an X.O. cognac sauce that tastes more of the cheap French tradition than anything purely Asian. There's also a kung pao fish spicy enough to strip the paint off a dump truck, and chow san shien (better known by its strip-mall translation, the Chinese "Triple Delight") with shrimp, beef and chicken in an egg-thickened white sauce.
Much less successful was the beef with vinegar, a heaping plate of thick-cut flank steak and soft petals of sweated onion in a sauce that made the meat taste like a Chinese sauerbraten, viciously heavy on the vinegar and difficult even to smell, let alone eat. But then a seafood wonton soup that I ordered as an afterthought -- the broth softly sweet and rich with steeped, briny flavors, the bowl packed with shrimp and crab and handmade pork dumplings -- was so perfect that I had to believe it was an accident.
Why? Because I'm a fatalist at heart. Because while I had several good meals at Crazy Asian, they all fell within the expectations set by that sweet-and-sour chicken: good, but not great; occasionally questionable, but never awful. With every meal, Crazy Asian was exactly the kind of neighborhood place I wish I had in my neighborhood, but not a place to drive miles for. Still, there was that amazing soup, which made everything else I'd eaten seem poorer in comparison -- and still makes me wonder whether there's more to Crazy Asian, some straining excellence that I somehow missed.
But that would have been tough. On that first visit, I ate everything put in front of me except the flatware, and finally even found a use for the sweet-and-sour sauce, swirling the warm wedges of red bell that had garnished the chicken through it and then eating them. It was a weird combo --candy-coated peppers -- but not bad. Even without the sugar-blind diabetic shock, the veggies at Crazy Asian were a pleasant surprise, served as close to the peak of freshness as the produce truck would allow, and handled with remarkable delicacy whether in the wok, on the grill or out of the steamer. The flavors were fresh and clean; everything that should snap when bitten did, and anything that ought to squish did that, too.
Getting up to leave, I felt almost healthy for having eaten all my veggies and cleaned my plate. And that -- for a generally unhealthy epicure and borderline lard addict like me -- just didn't feel right. So I asked for teriyaki short ribs to go, then stepped outside for a smoke. The order was ready about the same time I was. As I headed back in to settle my bill -- holding the door for the last two-top going out -- I was again taken by that smell. The owners should find a way to bottle the stuff; they'd make a mint. Or maybe just advertise it on the front of their to-go menus in big, bold letters: CRAZY ASIAN CAFE, NOW WITH AUTHENTIC CHINESE RESTAURANT SMELL.
The smell made me hungry all over again, and I didn't even wait until I got to my car to pull open the big, sticky styro box and start eating. Conveniently, the short ribs had been hacked into thin disks of meat-on-bone; they were sticky-sweet and chewy, like warm jerky, and vaguely flavored with grill smoke. It was finger food, perfect for a shameless glutton like me, and before I was even halfway home (okay, before I even made the highway), there was nothing left but teriyaki-stained rice and bare white bones.
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