I love ethnic restaurants that open in the abandoned shells of chain restaurants or, better yet, fast-food restaurants, and I love them even more when they keep the impedimentia and knickknacks of those former operations and end up serving their bulgogi beside napkin dispensers still embossed with a big, humped M or their noodles along the rail that once separated a Taco Bell's counter from its dining room. I love chefs who used to be something else (helicopter pilots or air-traffic controllers or journalists or rocket scientists), but fell into cooking the way that some people fall into drugs or prostitution — because they'd tried it once and liked it so much that, before they knew it, it'd become a de facto lifestyle choice. I love the crews that, like metal filings drawn to a magnet, found each other and themselves in the heat and noise and weirdness of a busy kitchen, in the riot of the dinner rush or the calm after closing. I love menus that come off as accidental, innocent fusions — the Indian restaurant that serves spaghetti or the pizza joint with samosa appetizers — and the kitchens that muddle up their techniques, cooking my steak in a wok or my barbecue in a gimmicked convection oven.
I love restaurants that don't bother with signs, or have signs that they don't bother translating into English. I love restaurants called "Korean BBQ" or "Noodles" or "The one with the weird picture of the dancing pork bun." And I love restaurants whose names make no sense at all — which have, through transfer of ownership or change in neighborhood or a slow, Brownian motion of cooks and managers and special requests and inattention, drifted from the place they once were into something altogether different, organic and strange.
I love Peking Tokyo Restaurant for many reasons: for its weird, misleading name (a holdover from previous owners); for its strange, hidden location on the blind side of a twisting strip mall in Lakewood, bracketed on either side by abandoned storefronts, its front door facing out across a busy parking lot toward the kind of neighborhood bar you have to be born into to like at all; for its smiling, multicultural and highly opinionated staff; for the counter crammed with menus and phone books and four stacked desk calendars and a cash register, and the shelf above it with its Buddhas and statues of Chinese emperors, small sculptures of Asian origin, one of those Love Is... statuettes, a screaming eagle. There's a completely innocent thread of postmodernism that runs like a narrow cord through the center of the restaurant's body, an animating spirit of mutt genetics and melting-pot synthesis that is acknowledged but never spoken of. It's an embodiment, a distillation of the immigrant experience — confusing and alien and mixed up and joyous, borderless and quiet and strange.
Peking Tokyo Express
3355 South Wadsworth Boulevard, Lakewood
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., closed Sunday
Peking Tokyo Restaurant
Steamed dumplings: $5.50
Prawns in garlic sauce: $10.50
Beef in black bean sauce: $9.75
Bo luc lac: $10.95
Cua lot: Market
Goi ga: $9.75
Pork curry: $9.75
And fragrant. Peking Tokyo smells better than almost any other restaurant in town. It has the greatest tea of any of the myriad Asian restaurants that dot the suburbs, served for free, lingered over by the wise, the tired, the lazy. And it has, perhaps, the longest menu I've seen (requiring, in the takeout version, an extra insert that focuses only on Thai food) and certainly one of the most curious, grown across a span of years, accumulating cuisines like a ship does barnacles, with a muddle of styles — Szechuan and Mandarin and Amerasian and Vietnamese and Thai and Cantonese, but also spaghetti and cheesecake and curry and teriyaki plates. Except for the teriyaki, there is no Japanese food at Peking Tokyo. And while Chinese food dominates the menu, it hardly represents the northern cuisine of historic Peking: There's no Peking duck, no pickled vegetables, none of the myriad dumplings a geographic fusspot might expect. The place might as well be called Bombay Decatur or Vientiane Toronto and serve gravy fries, Kentucky hot brown, pelmeni and corn dogs.
The traditional and the modern, the classic, the American classic and the nouvelle are all included on this menu in a merry jumble. There are wontons and steamed dumplings, crimped by hand, stuffed with pork and green onion, tasting slightly of cardboard; Chinese barbecued ribs that'll turn your fingers red for a day; lo mein and egg foo young and orange beef and Singapore noodles with yellow curry and bo luc lac (beef in black-pepper sauce over salad) and actual salad in a dozen permutations that all taste exactly the same but are pushed by the staff because they are light and healthy and, laughingly, "nice for growing," whatever that means. There are a dozen curries that, from those I've tasted, seem stuck, stranded somewhere between the bright, sharp punch of a Southeast Asian curry and the slow, smooth burn of those on the subcontinent: so bizarre, so good. There are fifty Vietnamese dishes, everything from pork roll and cua lot (which seems to be eaten by every Asian customer in the place — a fine recommendation, in my book) to delicious mi tom cua (shrimp, crab and pork with egg noodles), pho and goi ga —Vietnamese chicken salad, which I was talked into by a waitress one night when, for just an instant, I seemed unsure of what else to order.
"You like salad?" she asked.
I waffled, said "Uh..."
"Chicken salad with lemongrass," she said. "Very good. Not spicy." And then she ordered it for me, later bringing a plate of perfectly grilled chicken — two breasts, and then some — laid over a shredded iceberg salad drowning in bittersweet nuoc mam with cabbage and tomatoes and a sprinkling of peanuts.
There's a small, quiet magic in spare spaces, rooms that, devoid of ornamentation or decorated only in dribs and drabs and splashes of color, allow detail to fill the blanks. Peking Tokyo is so simple, so barren (blank walls, plain tables, generic chairs) that I find the place calming. I can focus on the clatter of pans in the kitchen, the biting sting of cleaning products, the faded newspaper clippings hung by the door and the various good luck charms tucked away here and there.
On a slow night (they all seem slow to me, with no more than a few tables in the small, L-shaped room), I sat drinking tea and waiting for some kind of shrimp dish (unsure about what the smiling waitress and I had finally decided on, anxious to see what would come), watching a family party unfold across the room — mothers and grandmothers sucking at the legs of their cua lot and scraping the inside of the shell with chopsticks while children climbed like tiny monkeys on the seat backs or poked fastidiously at their rice. They smiled a lot and laughed a lot, speaking in a language other than mine and clucking their teeth. In the back, a military family talked of books and NASCAR and ate sesame chicken, and I counted the cases of Tsing Tao stacked in the coat closet (there were nine) and watched the Chinese waitress in the Corona T-shirt take phone calls and try to balance out the credit-card reports for the night. It was late, but no one seemed to be rushing, and I allowed myself to be folded into the languor, rolling my tea cup between my palms and enjoying the unique odor of garlic hitting the sesame oil in a wok in the back.
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Whatever I'd ordered, it was excellent, served workman-like on a plain plate with white long-grain rice. The shrimp were tender, curled like they were sleeping in a thin, brown sauce that tasted of candied garlic and ginger and the vegetables that were steeping in it. I ate ravenously even though I wasn't particularly hungry, because the smell was enough to drive me crazy.
On another night, I went for the coconut curry pork with lemongrass and cheap crab rangoons so American they might as well have come with little flags and sparklers stuck in them. I'd also ordered steak cubes in garlic sauce, but instead got sesame-spiked beef in a black bean sauce — and thanked whatever food gods see to the affairs of bewildered waitresses that such a mistake had been made, because the dish was amazing: sweetly complex, sticky, savory and completely unlike any black bean sauce I'd ever had before, like the difference between mole from a can and mole made by hand, over 24 hours, by someone's abuela who's been making it for fifty years.
There's so much on this menu that I have yet to try the Thai food — although the Thai spaghetti (with tomatoes, basil, mushrooms and shrimp, cooked in a wok) and prig khing and pud kraw pow are next on my list. But then, if I live a hundred more years and spend fifty of them at this job, it still won't be enough time to tease out every strand of influence and innovation at Peking Tokyo. If I ate here every day and every night for a year, I don't think I'd understand the place any better than I do now, or have more of a grasp on what makes an owner, a cook, a kitchen roam so far afield and cover so much territory.
I know now only that I like this place a lot, that I want to get back for my own plate of cua lot and those steak cubes in garlic sauce that I never got, and to sink once more into the perfectly anonymous starkness of a room where the sweet, sharp little details — the statues above the counter, the Buddha on the floor, the worn spaces in the carpet and the chatter of happy families on a dull Tuesday night — add up to more vivid life than most crowded, cluttered and geographically rooted restaurants could hope for on any night of the week.