When I am through with this industry -- when I no longer feel (as I sometimes still do) the strong magnetic pull of kitchen life, the strange urge to put on my old whites and checks and stumble blearily into the 5 a.m. quiet of a house not yet awake; when I've eaten my fill of truffles and foie gras, when I look only with scorn on the delicate shoots of a frisee salad; when I've said all I have to say on the evils of celery, the joy of full-fat butter and the pure sensuality of melon and prosciutto -- I will eat nothing but Asian food for the rest of my life.
I will probably make exceptions here and there for good Italian (twice a year, no more) and la cuisine grandmère -- cassoulet, moules provençal and their like. There will be the occasional craving for saag paneer (without which life has no meaning) or an honest-to-Jesus bloody-rare cheeseburger, and when those urges seize me, I will follow my gut and find them. But my cuisine d'être will be that of Indochina and the mysterious East.
It's Easter Sunday at Mee Yee Lin, and I'm staring down at a half-eaten plate of crispy fried intestine, thinking just exactly how to describe it. I know that I have to do proper justice to both the critter that died and gave up its guts and the cook who handled those guts and put them on my plate, but I've found the English language sadly deficient in descriptives for fried digestive machinery. Porkerific? How 'bout intestational? The critic's standard linguistic tool kit just isn't up to the task.
Other people eat this, I tell myself. Other people eat this every day and enjoy it a lot -- otherwise, it wouldn't be on Mee Yee Lin's 75-item-strong dim sum menu. I've ordered it because I'm curious, because odds are that someday I'll be offered crispy fried intestine somewhere else and I'd like to be able to compare and contrast it with other crispy fried intestines I've sampled. I wonder if it's a delicacy -- that mythical "best bit," like squid ink or field mouse or flounder eye (all of which I've eaten) -- and worry that if I don't try it, I might be missing out on something great.
As it turns out, crispy fried intestine tastes exactly like crispy fried intestine. Like how you'd think that something's guts, cooked until crunchy, would taste. Not bad, but definitely not great.
Mee Yee Lin is bright and busy this Sunday afternoon. It's bright and busy on Saturday afternoons, too, and weekdays around lunchtime. With only two dozen tables (a couple of the cavernous dim sum joints nearby can seat hundreds), it's never really quiet, but on weekend mornings the crowds can sometimes stack up ten deep, waiting at the front door. Families with kids, families without kids, groups of seven, ten, twelve, all descend on this restaurant in the same sort of traditional way that non-Asian church-goers flock to Country Buffet on Sunday, or hockey fans gather at sports bars every Monday. The space is cute, with the understated floral motif and grinning ceramic kitty sculptures you find at many Chinese restaurants, but it's more comfortable. The place has the broken-in feel of a well-loved diner -- filmed with a patina of good vibes, all of its sharp corners rubbed off by years of service and the eternal Brownian motion of customers coming in, customers eating, customers leaving full and happy.
The staff moves with practiced grace between boisterous tables, close set and constantly being pushed together to seat twenty, broken up to seat three, and pushed together again for the big party coming in for the family reunion. The waitresses smile and delicately brave the thresher of clicking chopsticks to bring in more plates -- fifth, sixth and seventh courses of curried squid, balls of sweet rice wrapped in lotus leaves, big platters of stir-fried chow fun. One stops by the table next to ours to politely inquire if the poor guy in the NASCAR T-shirt would like anything besides the plates of white rice soaked in soy sauce that he's been eating for hours.
At more raucous dim sum restaurants, you order your meal by shouting and pointing at a favored plate on a passing cart or moving by on a conveyor belt. Mee Yee Lin works sushi bar-style, giving every table a paper menu and pencil so diners can pick precisely what they want and how much of it they'd like. That works fine, but it eliminates some of the adventure. My first taste of duck's-blood gravy (less gross than it sounds -- kind of like gamey, salty chocolate milk) was the result of some over-anxious pointing at one of those cart-pushing dim sum parlors. And I once joined a dozen Chinese, Mexican and Sri Lankan line cooks for midnight dim sum and found myself eating the floral garnish off a plate because I wasn't totally sure what part was food and what wasn't. I didn't want to embarrass myself by refusing anything that might be remotely considered edible -- and I paid for that culinary bravado later.
Still, even with its paper menu, Mee Yee Lin has plenty to offer the timid neophyte and the ballsy gourmand alike, including the challenge of having no one to blame but yourself when something strange arrives at the table. In other words, if you order the crispy fried intestine, pal, that's just what you're gonna get.
In addition to the intestine, Laura and I have ordered chewy dumplings stuffed with stiff chunks of shrimp and pork pâte, to which I'm unashamedly addicted. Plucked from their metal steamer and dipped in the bitter, salty soy sauce on the table, they somehow take on the flavor of pork-and-shrimp-stuffed soft pretzels. After two Hong Kong egg rolls -- meat and vegetables folded up like an envelope in a light, crisp wrapper -- we dig into a shallow dish of six rice-noodle crepes. The crepes are soft and wiggly, tasting gently of rice flour and whatever unaccented filling you choose (shrimp, beef or nothing at all), swimming in a less salty soy with a sharp, chemical aftershock that's like doing a shot of kerosene or bathtub gin. Laura could live on these -- and would, if given half a chance -- but I consider them most effective as a two-bite break between more interesting flights of little plates.
Such as the baked pork buns -- two of them, as big as softballs -- that are so good I find myself wishing the guy next to us eating plate after plate of white rice would give them a try. They're golden-brown on the outside -- beautiful and sticky-sweet with glaze -- while inside, the white, soft dough is still warm from the oven, chewy like fresh Wonder bread without being pasty. In the center of the bun is a dollop of spicy, candied barbecue pork. The whole thing is like a glazed pork doughnut, and I wonder if Krispy Kreme will ever catch on to this particular culinary genius.
We try to take a time-out for fresh-brewed tea, but the plates keep coming: fried dumplings in thick, crisp skins crimped like oyster shells; crispy pork -- thumb-sized chunks of it, breaded along the fatty edge and pan-fried; three fat slices of pan-seared water-chestnut cake.
Mmm...cake. It sounded so non-threatening on the menu, but what arrives at the table are three slabs of grayish Jell-O, gooey and blistered white on the outside from the heat of the pan, with shreds of water chestnut suspended throughout. We try it, poking and snapping at the corner of a slice with our chopsticks, attempting to shear off bite-sized pieces, spear them using a single chopstick like a fondue skewer and get them to our mouths before they wriggle free and drop -- with a sickening wet slap -- back onto the plate. The cake tastes a little sweet and dusky, with a flavor similar to marshmallows scorched over a campfire, but it's tough to swallow. Each bite hangs in the back of the throat like a second, tiny tongue.
We've been at our table for nearly two hours, and my only complaint is a forgotten round of Vietnamese iced coffee. I mention it to our waitress.
"After?" she asks, gesturing at our table still crowded with half-finished plates.
"No, please, we'll take it now," I say, and she brings it immediately, with sincere apologies.
We finish with a huge bowl of Hong Kong-style shrimp-dumpling soup. The broth is excellent -- deep, full-bodied and peppery, mellowed by the whole leaves of Chinese cabbage steeping in the bottom and bulked up by big, thin-skinned dumplings that swim like fluttering jellyfish in the bowl. The tender dumplings are filled with whole pieces of shrimp, perfectly cooked by the heat of the soup, and by the time we get to the bottom, Laura and I are ready to be rolled out. We linger a bit over the Vietnamese coffees, which dripped slowly while we ate. We watch the ballet as the staff expertly juggles menus and plates and multiple courses. The crowds are now flowing out to make space for the mid-afternoon rush to come. We pay our bill and join them.
I have this fantasy (about as fully formed as that of a child packing two peanut butter sandwiches and running away to the Yukon) of vanishing one day: booking tickets under assumed names and chasing off after the sunset with Laura. We'd spend maybe five years being two of "those loud bastards over at the Continental" straight out of Graham Greene -- les enfants terribles exploring and eating our way through China, Cambodia and Laos, the dawn markets of the Vietnamese delta, Hong Kong's karaoke bars and yakitori stands, the clattering glitz of the ginza, the peace of Japanese ryokans. When we were done, we'd come back (like any good adventurers) with a book. Something along the lines of Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, only better. And with more sex.
And better food.
Sushi, sashimi, pho, spring rolls, rice noodles and chrysanthemum tea -- these would be my meat and potatoes. I'd wake every morning to the slow drip of Café du Monde over sweetened, condensed milk, sit with Laura every night over cold Tsing Tao beers, and every Sunday, my best girl and I would go out for dim sum.
That's the fantasy, anyway. And it sounds great on paper, if not in real life, but I know one thing for sure: Stay away from the crispy fried intestine. That's one adventure I don't need again.
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