Tuesday, May 26, 2009

There's nothing wrong with Cantonese food

Don't get me wrong, I love spicy food. Give me Tony's Three Chili Chicken (Lao Sze Chuan), fiery Indian curries, spicy salsa, crushed pepper on the pizza, giardinera on my Italian Beef... but there's times when I've forgotten how good the stuff that isn't spicy can be too. Anthony Bourdain wrote in one of his books that one of his Mexican-born chefs said, "Why do Americanos like their food so [deleted] spicy?" I don't know... I like it. But sometimes I need to step away from it.

When I was young, there was a restaurant (long gone) on the west edge of Northbrook called Mandarin Village. It was the first place I ever had Kung Pao chicken (and it's still my memory of the best version of that: lots of peanuts, oily chicken, few veggies), but the dish I remember best was something called Beef with White Onion. I've never been able to find that dish elsewhere, (it might have been labeled "Mandarin"), and it's flavors are mainly sweet onion and sesame oil, but something about it has always eluded my cooking skills. Whatever happened to Shrimp with Lobster Sauce? These days, you order it you get a flavorless white sauce full of egg "rags" and not much else. When I was a kid it was a dark brown sweet and salty sauce, probably amped up with sesame oil.

In recent years, LTHForum.com has reintroduced me to the pleasures of Cantonese: Their namesake "Little" Three Happiness in Chinatown, Sun Wah on Argyle. There's a reverence to slow-cooked meats (roast duck and pork), a simple sauce, and a dedication to umami. The good stuff is oilier, fattier than the "healthy Chinese" that's been all the rage for a decade or more, but the good stuff always is.

So tonight, instead of ordering something with a chile pepper next to it on the menu, I ordered Chow Fun with Roast Pork. For a moment, the flavors of that long-lost Beef with White Onion came through.

They say you can't get your childhood back, but I found it for a moment.

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