Cafe Society

Paradise Asian Cafe may not take you to paradise, but close enough

My favorite movie of all time is Blade Runner. It gave me a serious yen for the intersection of Japanese and American culture that's flavored my tastes for years but still, I think, comes off as a bit more wholesome and less creepy than an obsession with Japanese schoolgirl uniforms or hentai.

Second favorite movie? The English Patient — a very nearly perfect film that also happens to be a thinly disguised historical costume drama, full of Nazis and biplanes and the doomed love between a taciturn mapmaker and some other man's wife. Had our first child been a boy, Laura and I were seriously considering naming this completely hypothetical him after one of the characters in that movie, though I was also lobbying hard for calling him Deckard.

The last book I finished was Craig Ferguson's celebrity memoir, American on Purpose. Before that, it was The Great Gatsby (for the thousandth time). And before that, The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. I'm halfway through the newest Pynchon right now. My favorite song, something of a theme, is probably "Mexican Radio," by Wall of Voodoo, a tune I could listen to a hundred times in a row without ever getting sick of it. When we were living in New Mexico, I tried to get Laura to take a job as an overnight DJ at some end-of-the-dial station run out of a shack in the high desert just so she could play it for me every morning as the sun was coming up and she was coming off shift.

"What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.... Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow, but it's the fuckin' truth," says Rob Gordon, the main character in the movie High Fidelity. If I remember correctly, he says this either right before or right after having sex with Lisa Bonet — which, not for nothing, would probably be on the list of what a lot of people would like. Not mine, necessarily, but a lot of other lists.

But that's neither here nor there. What's important is what he said: It's what you like, not what you are like, that matters. I believe that. I could easily find myself in a relationship with someone who was heavily into Communism and regularly picked fights with the elderly, but not with someone who didn't like bacon and The English Patient, Apocalypse Now and '80s one-hit wonders — the things I like. Laura and I once got stoned on a courtesy bag from our downstairs drug-dealing neighbor in Albuquerque, sat down to watch Apocalypse Now, and never made it past the opening scene, we were laughing so hard. Then we ate all the leftovers in the fridge and had sex on the couch. Honest to god, that's one of my favorite moments from all the years we've been together — one of the sweetest memories I've got in the vault, and one I find myself turning to over and over again on days that aren't as good as that one was.

It's what you like that matters. And I like science-fiction movies and books about sailing ships and celebrity memoirs and amateur pornography. I like music made in the years that music really mattered to me — those years I spent in high school and in kitchens and had very little of what anyone would consider taste — and falling asleep on the couch to cartoons in the wee hours of the morning. I like literature born of pain or poverty or cripplingly poor social skills and candy from foreign countries with no concept of what candy should be made of and girls who saw the original Star Wars in the theater, because I have absolutely nothing in common with girls who didn't. When I'm in the mood for seeing shit blow up, I like Michael Bay movies because no one makes shit blow up better than he does, and when I'm in the mood for barbecue, I like it to be made by someone with a little psychotic backwoods hillbilly in his blood, because the ability to cook good barbecue is genetic, and smoking pork is only one step removed from distilling moonshine — both of them being an art bestowed only on God's most special children. I like foie gras and French cheese and American cheeseburgers and Spanish tapas in almost equal measure. And while I like the cultural collisions and almost holy rigor of immigrant, ESL cooks making hot pots and jellyfish salad and char siu bao and sesame balls for their fellow transplants desperately homesick for a taste of Tianjin, Wuhan or Guangzhou, I love the second- and third-generation cuisine of Chinese cooks cooking for Chinese customers who grew up on the sweet-and-sour chicken, pineapple shrimp and kung pao, moo shu and orange-flavor everything that is indicative of the American-Chinese refugee canon — neither wholly one thing nor entirely the other; a cuisine born of happy and repeated impacts between an American taste for sugar and bold, simple flavors and the Chinese appetite for all manner of savory weirdness and sauces that make the French look like poor, Third World culinary cousins.

Finding unadulterated, second-generation Chinese-American grub can be difficult, though, like searching for classic muscle cars uncorrupted by computerized fuel injection and non-stock parts. In Rochester, I frequented a place that served Mai Tais in ceramic girly glasses and deep-fried everything else on the menu in what must've been a military surplus fryer — the kind used to crisp up whole cows for battleship crews. For a while, there was a spot off Quincy that did subgum wonton soup and crazy, old-school chow meins. But today, the most common version of American-Chinese cuisine you encounter is an unbalanced teeter-totter that leans more toward American ideals of healthy, brightly colored Asian foods full of bell peppers and broccoli, red-pepper flakes and lightweight, almost minceur-style sauces that even a supermodel could eat without having to immediately hork everything back up in the bushes outside. That '70s-style stuff — the pure alien soups and entrees made by confused Chinese cooks suddenly finding themselves cooking for a glut of fanatical round-eye foodies dying for chow mein and egg foo yung and dumplings full of pork pâté — is rare, swept away by modernity, changing tastes and the evil influence of the Food Network.

Fortunately, there are a few places left where a boy of highly particular likes and dislikes can find what he truly loves, when he should be off eating fish lungs and boiled sparrows in XO sauce cooked by some one-eyed genius just off the boat from Luoyang but really wants shrimp in lobster sauce. Shrimp in lobster sauce like you can get at Paradise Asian Cafe, an austere, simple place, tucked away in an Aurora strip mall and opened a couple of years back by owner Bobby Giang. He caters to a mixed bag of Asian families, American families, Asian American families and anyone else who happens to stumble across this restaurant amid all the big-box hardware and grocery stores, insurance offices, beauty parlors and liquor stores way down south.

Three decades ago (the furthest back my personal information goes), shrimp in lobster sauce was a deliciously gloppy, egg-white-thickened dish that was basically nothing more than a transmission vehicle for salt. The name fooled a lot of people into thinking the sauce was made with lobster, but it isn't: It's the sauce that Cantonese lobster dishes would traditionally be served in, though I've never actually seen lobster in lobster sauce on a menu. The lobster sauce of my youth was essentially stock + egg white + cornstarch slurry (or arrowroot) + salt + more salt + more salt + frozen peas and carrots of the cheapest variety, bought at the closest grocery store and saved until the owner saw us coming. In the '80s, the sauce became thinner, the egg white more blended, the texture silky and rich and not nearly so salty. In the '90s, everyone ate sushi and no one ate shrimp with lobster sauce except me. Those were dark days, and by the start of this decade, shrimp with lobster sauce had pretty much gone the way of egg foo yung and rum drinks in titty glasses — into the dark of posterity and dim memory. And when you do find it on a menu, it's usually the late-'80s version, all thin and watery and tasteless and disappointing. With real lobster sauce, you stick the leftovers in the fridge and they turn to shrimp Jell-O in seconds. The nouvelle stuff stays watery and tastes like an egg-white-and-nothing omelet put through the blender.

Paradise, though, has a shrimp with lobster sauce that should have its own spot in the Museum of Good Ideas That Are Bad for You — its own display, right alongside the Bac-Os and spray cheese and parachute pants. It is thick and viscous, soupy when piping hot and threaded with filaments of egg white like cirrus clouds in a chicken-stock sky. A dozen big shrimp, a pile of white rice with the nutty smell of properly cooked, properly Chinese medium-grain, and I have dinner. The first time I ordered it, along with a massive flight of twice-cooked pork and kung pao beef and pineapple chicken (because, back in the day, Americans apparently didn't know the difference between China and Hawaii, or didn't care), it was delivered by a waitress trying hard not to show the strain from carrying a twenty-pound tray — and I flashed back to my younger days, when I was chin-high at the table, waiting for the water at Ng's to whip the silver cloche off my plate and let loose the mushroom cloud of shrimp-scented steam.

There are no silver domes at Paradise, just plates — loaded down with meats and vegetables mixed in the kinds of sauces that haven't been seen since Dr. Atkins got the bright idea of becoming a millionaire. I quickly abandoned the dull, cabbage-stuffed egg rolls for chicken and pork dumplings dipped in straight soy and a whole bowl of those little fried noodles, dipped in hot mustard, that were once de rigueur at just about every Chinese restaurant but now tend to mark, like boundary flags, only those that hew to that certain brand of stubborn historical authenticity. I ate the shrimp in lobster sauce, then used my fingers to dig into Laura's kung pao beef with peanuts and red chiles whenever she wasn't looking.

There's the requisite Buddha at Paradise, as well as tables and chairs and silverware, but no chopsticks — a dead giveaway that Paradise exists in a time before everyone learned how to use chopsticks and even French restaurants started placing them alongside the salad forks and demitasse spoons. The service is very much of the present, though, friendly and eager to please, with smiling girls speeding between kitchen and tables, and Allen Loo, Giang's floor manager, either standing, elbow up on the bar, overseeing the ballet, or pitching in to answer phones, pour drinks and serve tables when it seems like there might be the littlest thing going wrong or too slow, then darting for the door and telling everyone to have a beautiful day even when it's nine o'clock at night.

When I returned to Paradise, I ordered the sweet-and-sour chicken, because the state of any restaurant's sweet-and-sour chicken (like the inclusion or lack of beef and broccoli and certain dishes named after generals of some renown) is indicative of the modernization of an already generationally multicultural jumbled cuisine. Paradise's deep-fried chicken in ubiquity sauce tasted of honey and hot red chiles and, over rice, brought me back to the suburban strip mall I was in rather than taking me to the suburban strip malls where I'd been brought up. But that was a short-lived detour into mundane reality, because the cup of wonton soup that came with the chicken was touched with cabbage (no pork, no napa, no tofu or any other modern contrivance) so finely shredded as to be almost translucent in the broth, floating around a few handmade baby dumplings.

By now, I was hooked (read: obsessed). So I went back to Paradise for pork fried rice (made with big pieces of breaded and fried pork, not the more common, cheap-jack bits of chopped or shredded barbecued pork); for hot-and-sour soup crafted with care (rather than being made with weird leftovers on Monday and served until Friday) out of nothing but egg-thickened broth and threads of tofu; for breaded, tender pork cutlet in black bean sauce that was sweetened by a bare handful of beans, tossed with fresh asparagus and poured over eggy rice. And finally, I ordered a to-go order of salt-and-pepper prawns — like shrimp in lobster sauce, a benchmark dish.

In this dish's best iteration, the prawns are served with the head and shell on, coated in a plastery batter of salt-and-pepper paste, like some kind of manhood test for white teenagers trying to live on filched plum wine and staff meals at the Chinese restaurant that employs them. In its next-best iteration, when served to actual customers, it's a careful, delicate preparation of salt-and-pepper-rubbed crustaceans, pan-fried and served in the shell with a side of plum sauce. But in these modern and health-conscious times, salt-and-pepper prawns are not often served at all outside of crowded dim sum parlors. And even at Paradise, they were shelled and de-tailed, deep-fried in a light batter and tossed in a thin, red-pepper-spiked sauce that tasted only dimly of anything and barely of salt or pepper at all.

It was good; it just wasn't what I like. Still, there was a Michael Bay movie on TV that I hadn't seen in a while, so I sat on the couch and ate my shrimp and watched shit blow up and was happy enough, for the moment, with my simple, loud and deep-fried life.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan