Cafe Society

Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp

Funny thing about the way this job goes sometimes: I often don’t know exactly what I’m going to be writing about a restaurant until the minute I sit down and actually start writing about the restaurant.

For example, this week’s review of Spice China? I hadn’t originally intended on talking about the Peking duck at all. Not because I didn’t love it, but because up until my last meal there, I hadn’t even tasted it. And if not for the fact that the kitchen hadn’t been serving the two things I’d gone in to eat on Monday night (a wine-marinated cold chicken and duck packed in salt), I might never have had the opportunity to learn just how good chef Jack Mok’s Peking duck is.

What I’d originally intended on writing about was the kitchen’s salt-and-pepper shrimp and how they’d failed utterly in recalling to me the memories of the greatest salt-and-pepper shrimp I’d ever had: as a staff meal while I was tending bar at the Hong Kong Restaurant.

Staff meals at the Hong Kong were very formative meals for me -- standing or sitting at the bar during the four o’clock lull in service, shoulder-to-shoulder with the restaurant’s off-the-boat staff of gray-legal Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, eating the truest, most authentic peasant food I was ever going to eat. Balls of rice, unsold fish, dark-meat chicken and the limp ends of vegetables resuscitated by the cooks in sauces made from scratch out of whatever was at hand. These dishes (oily stews, strange omelets, bizarre stir-fries of chicken feet and hard-boiled eggs) were the Asian equivalent of French coq au vin, American casseroles or English kidney pie -- preparations designed to squeeze one more meal out of inedible leftovers unfit for the master’s table, the genetic bones hidden beneath the flesh of the world’s great cuisines.

And my favorite of these meals? Salt-and-pepper shrimp and squid, made from sea critters too far gone to serve to paying customers on the main floor, repurposed and revitalized to make dinner for the staff. The cooks would take the shell-on, graying shrimp and tentacles from the bottom of the squid bucket, dry them and then batter them in some kind of strange, gooey slurry of salt, salt, more salt, pepper and salt. With a little water added (and maybe some cornstarch, some red chile flakes, a dot or two of oil), the mix would form a paste that stuck like wet cement to the seafood. They would then be fried (sometimes in the Friolators, sometimes in a super-hot wok), doused with a shot of soy and served over a mound of salted white rice.

They were delicious, either peeled or simply eaten whole, shell and all. Eating two of them would be enough to parch me, dry my lips, make them crack and bleed. Any more required massive amounts of cold beer to make them palatable. And I would regularly eat an entire plate’s worth, diving into the communal platter as soon as it was set on the bar and grabbing as many as I could get my hands on before retreating to the end of the bar and eating alone, knocking back Tsing Taos, picking pieces of shrimp leg out of my teeth. I have never forgotten the taste of elderly, overcooked and rubbery shrimp in my mouth, the feeling of the salt crust forming on my lips, the ravenous hunger that would overcome me when I saw the tray being carried towards the bar. And I’ve been looking for a similar experience at Chinese restaurants around the country ever since.

As yet, I haven’t found anything that even remotely compares. And Spice China was no exception. It’s not that the salt-and-pepper shrimp here weren’t good -- they were, served butterflied in the shell and crusted in a mildly salty, floury fried batter shot with five-spice and red pepper -- but good was not what I was looking for.

Bad. That’s what I was looking for. Borderline health-code violation bad, and so salty as to be almost inedible.

Because when questing after memory, good is not always what’s in the cards. What’s better? A highbrow and delicious Frenchy-Mexican seventeen-ingredient tamale constructed by Chad Clevenger at Agave Grill or some dumpy, buck-a-throw, three-ingredient masterpiece from out of a tamale cart on Federal? It all depends what you’re looking for.

And last week, though I went looking for peasant food and terrible leftovers, what I found was a fantastic and historic Peking duck. So I should feel lucky, right? I should be happy that I came away with something great, rather than a copy of something very, very bad.

Yes and no. I’m happy that chef Mok and his kitchen were able to make me such an excellent duck, but I’d really been hoping that Spice China -- which made a name for itself by attempting authentic Chinese and Shanghaiese street food -- would be able to provide me with that kick of memory, that taste of the past I’d been looking for.

But like the man says: You can’t always get what you want. – Jason Sheehan