Cafe Society


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And right now at Jing, Huang is coming very close.

One of the hallmarks of a Huang menu has always been a dependence on Chinese foods made nearly American by their ubiquity: kung pao this and General Tso's that, Chinese preparations that would seem more foreign in Beijing than in Omaha. Being a dick, I ordered almost exclusively from that dull region of Jing's menu, asking for chicken lo mein, for fried rice and dumplings and ginger prawns, expecting little but more of the same.

But what I got was the best chicken lo mein I've had in years: perfect, stiff and broken buckwheat noodles touched with a light, almost clear sauce powerfully flavored by garlic's sweetest notes and chicken that had been prepared as a paillard, given a fast turn or two around the wok, then served almost as a soft textural counterpoint to the firmness of the noodles. There were julienne threads of carrot wound through the nest of pasta, and pea pods so green and fresh they looked like jade and snapped when I bit them. With one plate, Huang's cooks proved that the yuppie-bait style of Chinese cooking does not have to suck. If handled carefully, it can be delicious.

I was briefly set back by an order of nasty lobster har gow dumplings that had been steamed in the dim sum style but left in the damp heat far too long, until they tasted like tiny lumps of lobster bubble gum wrapped in a gelatinous skein of goo. But then the ginger prawns arrived.

I worked once in a Chinese restaurant — the only white kid on a staff of Vietnamese ex-mercenaries (the killing kind, not the cooking kind) and illegal Chinese immigrants who worked all day and all night for no money and often slept in the basement. It was a great gig. The owners were so crooked they had to get up every morning and screw their pants on, and just about everything I know about the larcenous side of the restaurant business I learned from them. And most of what I know about the way the Chinese truly eat I learned from their cooks, who, twice a day, every day, would make a staff meal out of whatever odds and ends were knocking around the kitchen. One of the things they served was a kind of omelet made with shrimp and lemongrass, eggs and bitter greens and slivers of raw ginger. They'd crack a dozen eggs into a pot of boiling broth, whisk them until the egg separated into clots of grayish protein, and then, with one big handful, add everything else, allowing it to poach in the liquid for a minute before scooping the mess out with wire strainers and dumping it unceremoniously into a huge trencher.

The staff would all eat together at the bar, sharing the big bowl, stabbing with our chopsticks. Eventually, this became one of my favorite meals: eating shoulder-to-shoulder with killers and crooks, fighting to get at the best bits soaking at the bottom of the bowl.

With the ginger shrimp, Jing's kitchen has re-created this dish almost perfectly, adding to it the sting of a white ginger sauce and the subtle citric bite of lemongrass used the way that lemongrass is meant to be used — as a grace note, a gentle acidic nudge to the tastebuds that cuts the duff flavor of ugly, gray poached egg. I was surprised by what Jing had pulled off, blissful over the rediscovery of flavors I'd thought long gone from my current, less larcenous life.

When I returned on a weeknight, the sinners' lounge was like an episode of Accounts Receivable Clerks Gone Wild, with a lot of office drones pounding terrible things in martini glasses and rich men in shoes that cost more than my car stabbing dumplings with their chopsticks. This time, I was afraid to venture into the bathroom for fear that all those things I wanted to do might actually be going on — being done now by ugly people with awful hair plugs and pantsuits — so I switched from beer to whiskey and ate Shanghai pork dumplings running with red wine vinegar; smoky, sweet Peking duck; and rock shrimp tempura, honey sweet and touched with a red-chile aioli that was excellent until it started to cool and congeal.

I tried the chicken lo mein again and found it to be good, but somehow less good than it had been the first time — the kitchen no doubt roughed up a little by a late happy-hour pop and not paying quite as much attention to the careful balance of flavors. But the simple fried rice served as a platform for showcasing the powers of a proper French mirepoix in Chinese cooking, and the roast pork tenderloin with honey-barbecue sauce was a wonderful, house-made version of the Chinese barbecued pork served at every strip-mall takeout joint in the country, only cut from a full loin and served almost naked, sided by just a few steamed vegetables as a conceit to the health-conscious and a small bowl of white rice.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan