I’m full of it. Chinese food, that is. Read all about it in today’s Ticket, where I rounded up some of the area’s long-lived old-school Chinese restaurants. My addiction to Chinese food runs deep. It began in Philadelphia, where I learned to love big, fat, shrimp-, pork- and cabbage-filled eggrolls, thick wontons floating with scallions in a rich chicken broth, and shrimp with eggwhite-laced lobster sauce — among other treats offered in blood-red dining rooms hung with paper lanterns and presided over by old men in black vests. You know. Places serving food that looked a lot like this:
Once old enough to earn babysitting money, I spent it on Chinese takeout, and I still remember the strip mall spot near my grandmother’s apartment, (blissfully) within walking distance, where I’d purchase a heat-proof bag of chubby barbecued pork ribs slathered with “duck sauce” — and eat it (no fighting over the fattest ones with my siblings!) on the way home.
Then, after high school, I lit out on my own, moving to Cape May, N.J. — a short drive from the Dragon House in Wildwood, where I learned to love roast duck served with pineapple and (oh, exotica!) canned litchis. There, lucky patrons could watch as the owner stood in the middle of his busy dining room showing off his noodle-making prowess — by turning sheets of floury pastry into long and incredibly more slender strands, using only the dexterous fingers of his bare hands, just like this:
At 20, I drove across the country in a little red Renault to live in Santa Barbara. There I got the shock of my East Coast-bred Chinese-food-loving life: there were no crunchy little fried wonton “noodles” to dip into Chinese mustard — the classic “appetizer” served free with the tea in the restaurants I’d always frequented. And what was up with barbecued pork served with that same sinus-clearing mustard, plus sesame seeds and — ewwww! — ketchup?
But all was forgiven once I learned, first hand, that the West Coast was also home to San Francisco’s Chinatown. There, a young woman with long blond hair who’d only just mastered the art of using chopsticks, could climb the funky stairs of some unmarked restaurant to find herself blissfully “alone” in a spacious room with umpteen families who looked nothing like her, speaking a language she couldn’t understand — a room where weary waitresses propelled clattery carts filled with that marvelous, movable feast they called “dim sum.”
In 1988 I arrived in Seattle, where Chinese food aficionados storm the Canadian border, claiming “the only good Chinese food is in B.C.” I am not one of those naysayers. I’ve never gotten over my good luck in landing in a city whose Chinatown offers myriad versions of daily dim sum. Where fresh crab (and in season, shrimp!) come live from a tank. A place where Szechuan food has invaded the neighborhoods and fresh tofu is not an anomaly. A city where a lofan like me can eat like a native: taking chopsticks in hand to enjoy steaming bowlfuls of sui-kau, yu choy sauteed with garlic, hand-shaven barleygreen noodles, whole fresh fish delicately laced with ginger and green onion and pig’s ears served cold in a salad:
But there are many, many people living in and around Seattle whose “old hunger” for Chinese food never got past the egg foo young/beef chow mein/almond fried chicken stage. Folks whose idea of a great Chinese meal might begin with egg flower soup, like the one served in Everett at the China Doll . . .
And move on to chow mein, almond fried chicken and egg foo young, seen here at Perry Ko’s South China in Bellevue. . .
. . .and end with a fortune cookie, like this generous plateful at Tai Tung in the I.D.:
Obviously, the fortune in their cookies (unlike the one I received more than once) never came bearing the words: “You will eat in an exotic restaurant.” For those diners — and they are legion! — Greater Seattle remains a bastion of delights: a satisfying stomping ground of the one-from-column-“A” two-from-column-“B” variety:
So, in the name of good fun, I set out to see what it is I’ve been missing ‘lo these past 20 years, as I’ve ignored the oldies-but-goodies: some long-lived Chinese restaurants that have captured the hearts — and stomachs — of so many. Places whose signs have been familiar landmarks:
Joints where “family-style” meals look like this:
I must say, that week after week, meal after meal, the food all started to look uncannily the same:
And by the time I was through eating all that heavy, batter-dipped, cornstarch-laden sweet-and-sour this and egg foo that, I was cured of the Chinese food-jones for a while and dying for some sushi:
So, what do you think: Do we live in Chinese food heaven? Or is Seattle a Chinese food lover’s hell? Are Chinese-American restaurants the greatest thing since pre-packed saltines, or are they just an excuse to eat cheap food in dark bars? And who is the best karaoke singer at the Rickshaw, anyway? Where’s the best dim sum you’ve ever eaten? Is there any truly good dim sum around here? Do you hear the strains of “Oh, Canada” when the mood for Chinese strikes? Am I a stuck up, Szechuan food-eating snob? Speak up — I’m all (pig’s) ears!