Like most grown-ups who've managed to survive their youthful follies, I look back on my early recklessness and shake my head with wonder: How could I have been so dumb?
For instance, in my early 20s, I spent five years living deep in the Third World, absolutely convinced of my immortality. With open eyes, I did things then that I wouldn't do now under heavy sedation.
Example 1: In west Africa, I booked a flight on something called Air Mauritania. The plane looked like Baron von Richthofen's--after it was shot down. Yet, as we revved up to top speed for takeoff, I didn't record even the slightest twinge of fear when I glanced out the window and watched a guy on a camel pass us.
Example 2: Working in Iran just before the ayatollahs took over, I took some vacation time to sneak a view of a holy Shiite shrine, a site of pilgrimage and worship. Because non-Muslims were forbidden to enter, I had to get myself dressed to blend in with the throng, and learn the proper devotional technique. I asked a friend what would happen if I were discovered. "Oh, they'd probably stone you," he said.
If rickety planes and militant Muslims didn't fill my thick head with terror, the prospect of eating native specialties in Third World restaurants certainly couldn't. I'd eat anything, anywhere, in joints so grungy that even the flies would hesitate before entering. (A lifetime of Mama Seftel's cooking, I naively believed, had furnished me with gastrointestinal immunity.)
That wonderful sense of youthful invulnerability has long since worn off. These days, I get sweaty palms before a Southwest Airlines flight to San Diego. I won't buy anything by Salman Rushdie, or even check out his books from the library unless I use someone else's card. And I'm considerably fussier about the state of ethnic joints I eat in.
Recent visits to two Asian places, New Mandarin Delight and Da Vang, spotlighted the change in my restaurant attitude.
New Mandarin Delight is the kind of Chinese restaurant that I used to scorn for not looking "ethnic" enough.
In the old days, one peek at the tables would have been enough to kindle my skepticism. They're covered with pale-green linen tablecloths, not chipped Formica. They're set with cloth napkins and--horrors--forks, spoons and knives, not chopsticks. The walls aren't plastered with untranslated, off-the-menu Mandarin specialties. Instead, they're lined with expensive-looking Chinese ceramic figurines. From big, comfy booths, diners peer through picture windows that overlook jetting fountains set in a pond. How, I would have asked myself, could you trust such a spiffy, good-looking place to serve authentic, tasty fare, and not Americanized combination-plate glop?
Well, in fact, New Mandarin Delight does serve chow mein, egg-roll and fried-rice combo platters. But I can't hold that against it--no Chinese restaurant in our town could survive with a Chinatown-type menu that featured only such exotic treats as duck feet, cold jellyfish and a pork-fat hot pot.
So I'm not upset that New Mandarin Delight offers lots of you-can-get-them-anywhere staples like sweet-and-sour pork, kung pao chicken and beef with broccoli. That's because there are still plenty of dishes here to bring a smile to more adventurous fans of Chinese food.
I'd have to put Peking duck at the top of that list. This is one of the few places in the Valley that prepares this specialty, and you don't have to order it in advance. You get your money's worth, too. For 20 bucks, you receive a whole, crisp-skinned, honey-brushed duck, brought to your table by two servers. One puts on latex gloves (the kind your dentist uses), grabs the bird with one hand and carves off the meat with the other. Waiter number two is busy coating moo-shu pancakes with plum sauce, adding scallions and sliced duck, and wrapping them up. My group of four got two servings each out of this, plus the meat we gnawed off legs and wings.
Yuling chicken isn't nearly as fancy, but it's equally scrumptious. I especially admired its clean, fresh taste. The kitchen batters and lightly fries juicy chunks of boneless, marinated breast, throws in some crunchy cabbage for texture, then moistens everything with the chef's delicately flavored "special" sauce.
Twin-flavor shrimp is another house specialty that hits its target. You get 14 firm crustaceans, half of them covered with a light white-wine sauce, the other seven with a snappy hot-ginger sauce that adds a pleasing zing to the dish. Sizzling black-pepper steak also is satisfying: four extremely tender beef medallions crusted with pepper, served on a sizzling skillet with green pepper and onions in a first-rate black-bean sauce.