April 1st, 2010 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (23)
Finally, an authentic Chinese restaurant in Tulsa.
People sometimes ask me what I miss most about New York. They expect me to say the crowds, or the theatres, or the boundless wave-tossed sea. I always answer, Chinese restaurants. Entering a Chinese restaurant in New York, whether it’s hidden in an alley in the depths of Chinatown or way out beyond the rail yards in Queens, is to enter a secret, exotic and welcoming world, and at its best it’s like stumbling upon a genial family gathering, and for a short while being part of it. Sometimes there are secret menus, with all the best stuff on it, given to the select few. Sometimes there’s even a secret restaurant, a banquet hall hidden behind an unprepossessing noodle shop. And if you think I’m spinning a fine yarn with mostly blarney in it, have a look at two little diaries I wrote. (see the links below)
Guang Zhou Dim Sum isn’t a secret, but it’s hidden away in plain view where you’d never think to look, attached to an EconoLodge Motel way out in East Tulsa. Instead of the lengthy trip down the side alleys near the Manhattan Bridge, there’s the long ride down I-44 west to exit 235. The restaurant is a few feet from the exit but you’d never spot the unassuming white building if you weren’t looking for it. And in a way there is a secret menu. Most people go for Dim Sum, the unending cavalcade of small delicious dishes (dumplings, soups and more) best experienced with a large raucous family on Sunday at noon. (I’ve been to huge cavernous dim sum halls in New York, hundreds or even thousands of people, raucous, happy, everyone having fun.) But I didn’t go for that. I asked for the dinner menu, with elegant elaborate dishes prepared to order. At dinner, the restaurant was mostly deserted. Some kids, the owner’s children I think, sat at a corner table, supposedly doing homework but really watching Nickelodeon. Our waitress, fluent in both English and Mandarin as well as Cantonese, was probably also a relative, and perhaps that’s why she made us feel as welcome as if we were invited to a private house.
I ordered immediately. I’d been so excited about this meal that I’d had the menu emailed to me by the restaurant and had planned the meal in my mind a week in advance. I asked her to bring the dishes (two friends with me, so three dishes) as soon as each was ready, since one took far longer than the others. I’ll skip the anxious, eager, nervous, joyous wait as we glanced toward the kitchen, waiting for the dishes to come out. I’ll go straight to the dishes. All were Cantonese. (Not surprising, since Guangzhou means Canton)Cantonese food is totally unlike the food of Southeast Asia, which after all isn’t that far away. They don’t do an Emeril, say “BAM!”, and throw in handfuls of exotic spices. The sauce, the cooking method, all is designed to bring out and accentuate the basic flavor of the ingredients. Which doesn’t mean it’s simple or easy to do. It’s not. (Indeed, some of the sauces are quite complex, and a good black bean sauce, with fermented soybeans, has a rich and subtle flavor like a good wine.) And it’s not all stir-fried. In fact, nothing I ordered was stir-fried.
Perhaps my favorite Cantonese delight is a casserole. The ingredients are seared or steamed or in some fashion partly cooked, then put in a clay pot with a sauce and simmered, so the taste of the sauce is braised and steamed into the ingredients. The menu lists ten casseroles; they call them “hot pots”. I ordered one of my favorites, “Chicken and Salted Fish with Eggplant” ($9.25).
It came in a chafing dish and not a clay pot, but I’ve seen that before and it’s just fine, maybe an improvement over the clay vessel. The eggplant was the star here, perfectly cooked, with bits of chicken and salty fish and a rich brown sauce to complement its flavor. My friends loved this; one had never eaten eggplant before and now she wants to eat it constantly.
A few minutes later the waitress returned carrying a big bowl and a flat metal plate. She put the plate, which was very hot, on a table next to ours, and carefully dumped the contents of the bowl on it. A gusher of steam shot up; our meal was being cooked as we watched. You can see some of the steam in the photo.
This was the “Sizzling Seafood Combination” ($14) and though there were more vegetables than seafood, and mostly squid and fish balls at that, the light salty sauce, redolent of the tang of the sea, brought out the essence (or Platonic ideal, if you don’t like Aristotle) of seafoodness and made those humble fish balls taste better than the finest shrimp. The essence of Cantonese cooking defined in a dish.
But then the third dish came and I forgot about the other two, in fact abandoning them to my friends and hoping they wouldn’t notice I was eating all that third dish. It was a whole fish, head tail and all, and in my view a whole fish is perhaps Cantonese food’s greatest glory. Most elegant Cantonese restaurants in New York or Canton or wherever have big elaborate fish tanks and you’d think it’s a pretty ornament, look at all the lovely fishes, but if you point at one of them, the waiter will get a net and catch it. I didn’t see tanks at Guang Zhou but when I ordered our fish, the waitress ran back to the kitchen to tell the chef to get a fish from the tank.
Actually ordering the fish was a story in itself. On the menu it said, “Crispy fish with brown sauce — Seasoned Price” and when I asked she said $22. I must have looked sad, because the Chinese characters next to the name said not brown sauce but red-cooked, which is my favorite Shanghainese fish preparation (and might be the oldest recipe in the world, since a recipe for red-cooked pork is contained in a poem written by superstar poet Su Dongpo sometime around the year 1150). So then she said, oh we can let you have a tilapia for $9. So with glee in my eyes I asked for that. And the fish that came was bigger than any Tilapia I’ve seen (except for one I saw in Uganda that weighed 200 lbs, but that’s another story) Here it is. Doesn’t it look good?
It was not, as the menu promised, red-cooked. And perhaps that’s just as well, a Cantonese chef wouldn’t have done justice to a Shanghai recipe. It was steamed, lightly coated in batter (perhaps using potato flour) and seared. Again, the essence of Cantonese. The fish was perfectly cooked — tastes like it just came out of the river, one of my friends said — the flesh soft, the outside crunchy, and I ate every bit, head eyes belly tail and all, leaving a little heap of dry bones.
After that, everything was anticlimax. We left the secret world of China and drove home.
Secrets of Chinatown: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/328296
Eating in Chinatown: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/342344
About the Author:
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford (Meaning cow crossing a stream in Chinese) at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately.
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.