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I think I've spotted a new trend. Lately I've been hearing a lot of people waxing nostalgic about "good old Cantonese-style" Chinese food. After years of experimenting with exotica like duck's feet and taro root, people seem to be developing a taste for less challenging Chinese fare. Is this a simple case of homesickness for one's youth and the foods associated with it? Or do people really miss egg foo yung, chop suey and fried rice? Because I certainly don't. I have about as much wistful sentiment for these foods as I have for crawling. It was a nice way to start out, but I don't want to return to it.
When most people speak of "Cantonese-style," they are not, for the most part, referring to the Southeastern school of Chinese cooking revered for its ability to coax enhanced flavor from fresh ingredients. They're talking about what I call Chinatown food--recipes modified to appeal to American tastes.
Years ago, when I began poking around various urban Chinatowns looking for good things to eat, this so-called "Cantonese-style" cooking predominated. I cut my teeth on it. When my love affair with food from the spicier Hunan and Szechuan provinces commenced, I didn't look back.
Except for the purposes of this review.
If Phoenix had a Chinatown, I would have visited it. But, as you may know, our urban planners obliterated it sometime during the first half of this century. So, I visit two of the oldest Chinese restaurants in town, where I'm sure to get "Cantonese-style" cooking filtered through generations of American tastes.
The man in the short-order cook's hat looks melancholy. He flips the "Closed" sign to "Open," unlocks the front door and lets us in. "Sorry," he says. "Got busy."
According to my watch, Mandarin Restaurant, owned and operated by the same family in several locations since the 1940s, should have opened twenty minutes ago. "We weren't sure you were open anymore," I joke. "Well," he says, "Way things are going, maybe . . . "
We select a booth and sit down. He brings us menus and water. We ask for hot tea. "Two?" he asks. We nod. We are the only customers in the restaurant. No one else enters the entire time we are there.
Despite the aristocratic overtones to its name, Mandarin is a plain place. The exterior has a fast-food, convenience-store look to it. The inside is simple and unadorned. Red vinyl has been stretched to cover our table. Our booth is made of white vinyl. The place settings at each table are identical. Fork and spoon. Salt and pepper. Sugar, ashtray, soy sauce. The man in the short-order hat brings us a dish full of pink packets of diet sweetener. Our teacups have handles and sit on saucers.
We give him our order. I request chopsticks and hot oil. "We use crushed red pepper," he says. "It's what they get the hot oil from." He asks if we want the special soup before the rest of our meal. We say yes. In a few minutes, it arrives. Cubes of tofu, shrimp, shredded bok choy, scallions and strips of nori (seaweed) are suspended in a lackluster chicken broth. We eat the soup with metal spoons instead of the Chinese ceramic utensils supplied elsewhere. The soup is oversalted, but the subtle flavors and textures are pleasing. I sprinkle a little crushed red pepper on it. He's right; it does the trick.
In the kitchen we can hear the clank of metal against metal as the chef stir-fries the rest of our meal. The radio plays Seventies schmaltz: Barry Manilow, Frankie Valli, England Dan and John Ford Coley. It turns out to be appropriate--this is the same music that accompanied my initial encounters with Cantonese cooking. I amaze myself by knowing almost every song and artist.
The first dish out of the kitchen is pepper steak with black bean sauce. It is quite good. Green bell peppers and onion perfectly complement the strips of stir-fried beef in piquant black bean sauce. My only complaint is the inclusion of bamboo shoots. By attempting to be exotic, the dish actually becomes more mundane. Question: Does anybody really like bamboo shoots? Stand up and be counted.
Rather than the vat of steamed rice usually provided in Chinese restaurants, we receive just one small soup-bowl portion. Knowing my dining accomplice, this will not be enough. Shrimp with ginger sauce is out next. The portion isn't the hugest, a fact emphasized by the dish it's served in, a small soup bowl. But the shrimp are very good: exceedingly fresh and firm, with ample snow peas and a great ginger flavor. In fact, I'd probably rave about it if it were hotter than lukewarm and presented on a regular platter. Our third dish is a mistake. Ordering from a section titled "large bowl of noodles," I don't realize I am ordering yet another soup. Worse yet, I do not understand when our waiter tries to warn me. So we end up with a large bowl of wor mein noodle soup, which wouldn't be bad except the noodles are pale, mushy and unappealing. They remind me a little too much of the kind you find in canned chicken noodle soup. Too bad, too, because with a different noodle, I'd really like this soup. It's topped with chicken, slices of barbecued pork, shrimp, onions and a hard-boiled egg.