"Chinese food" in my neighborhood all comes from the same Master Menu with variations on that theme. Dumplings that all taste the same, chow fun noodles, green beans cooked with enough chili to call them "Sichuan", "Mongolian" beef, salt and pepper chicken/squid/shrimp, fried rice variants, soup and hotpots--the only difference lies in the freshness of the ingredients. So when I went to a new neighborhood spot and had chicken congee in which the chicken was possibly the same age I am, I wrote that place off--as I did another where I smelled scorching rice as I waited for my food and then discovered that rice on my plate.
The other day I passed the Home of the Ancient Chicken and was caught by some photos taped to its window. Sichuan they said. Now call me a cock-eyed optimist if you will, but when I see the word Sichuan I begin to salivate with the memory of Sichuan pepper. Since this spice is no longer illegal in my home country, I keep thinking that someday I will order something called Sichuan, put it in my mouth, and feel that incredible tingle and slight numbness that comes only with fresh huajiao peppercorns.
I walked in and ordered noodles with pork belly, and then I hoped.
The bowl that came to me was full to the brim with slivers of meat and thinly sliced vegetables. Under that was tiny bok choy, perfectly tender but not limp. Then there were thin noodles, laced with chili oil and sprinkled with some chopped peanuts. I put a piece of the meat in my mouth and felt a stab of pure joy. It didn't hold the pepper I yearned for, but it had the deep, clear, almost Neanderthal taste of a pig's intestine, beautifully cooked.
I hadn't eaten anything like this for a year. The style of the dish wasn't at all Thai but the freshness of the carefully cooked ingredients was. The texture of the different ingredients was. The delight I felt while eating it was, along with a little thrill of putting something that was almost a clandestine pleasure into my mouth.
It's rare that I leave a place anywhere in this American city feeling as though I've been truly well-fed. When I do, the memory of this keeps me happy for days. Simple food, well-prepared--not as easy as it sounds. One false move in making that bowl of noodles would have sent me away, queasy, with the food unfinished. Instead I left with an unfamiliar feeling of satisfaction, and comfort.
And hope--someday in this Chinatown, I will have bao zhe and smashed cucumbers in vinegar and chili oil and green beans with pepper that makes my tongue feel dizzy. When the smell of Xinjiang lamb skewers and grilled chicken hits my nostrils when I walk out into the street, I'll know this city has grown up..