By Emily Codik
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By Hannah Sentenac
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By Laine Doss
If my car hadn't dramatically experienced two flat tires in front of the huge Tower apartment complex on Indian Creek, I'd never have known about Embassy Peking, even though it's three blocks from my house. There certainly isn't any kind of sign out front. When I walked up to the lobby to call AAA, however, and noticed the place hidden in the corner, the idea of a stealth Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population, didn't really stun me. After all, gay bars traditionally come cloaked in the same kind of shutters-instead-of-signs secrecy, for the same reason: Advertising isn't necessary when you've got a built-in audience for your commodity -- which is the chance to socialize in safety with People Like Us and, in this case, to eat kosher Chinese food.
Since Chinese-cuisine authority Eileen Yin-Fei Lo notes, "traditionally in China, meat is pork" (and many other nonpork items use some form of equally tref shellfish), it can be easier to find a gay bar in Pocatello, Idaho, than a kosher Chinese food that tastes at all authentic. Spareribs, listed under "specialties," illustrated the challenge. Embassy Peking's menu states that its roughly 70 Chinese dishes (there's also an extensive selection of Pocatello-type stuff like Salisbury steak, plus gefilte fish, kishkes, and other Jewish classics) are prepared "using traditional Chinese cooking methods." But eating veal, the source of Embassy's ribs, is unheard of in China. So the veal ribs, being more gelatinous, were very unlike pork ribs in texture. Additionally, since traditional Chinese sparerib marinades feature salty shellfish-derived oyster sauce, the ribs tasted more one-dimensionally candylike than usual.
While it was especially disappointing in a restaurant named Peking not to find the eponymous duck dish on the menu, crispy duck over sautéed vegetables seemed a good way to test the restaurant's printed claim that "all ... vegetables are fresh." Uh-uh. Broccoli was fresh; bamboo shoots weren't. Chinese cabbage was fresh; straw mushrooms weren't. That said, the vegetables were crunchy and not a bit overcooked, the dish's sauce was deeply flavorful, and the boneless duck bits, though oversalty, came coated in a gratifyingly greasy airy-crisp breading. Oriental pepper steak also was tasty, though obviously not "classic," as the menu claims (classic Chinese jiu chau ngao features, again, oyster sauce), or "light."
But most of the food I tried -- a pleasant though understuffed and underspiced egg roll and fried rice with fresh but overcooked vegetables -- was fine, if nothing to write home about. The real problem was price. At $18 to $27 per entrée, we're talking double or even triple what one would pay at most Chinese eateries: Nobu prices for neighborhood food. This phenomenon of paying through the nose for normal-quality stuff, just because of what you are, is what has for decades, in women's bars, been called "paying the gay tax" -- another unexpected homo/Ortho common ground. Honestly, when was the last time anyone who does not keep kosher paid $20.95 for a chicken chow mein combination platter?
The bottom line is that Embassy Peking's Chinese food is good for what it is, but you pay big bucks for what it is. So unless your identity makes you a captive audience, I'd go for the equally tasty combo platters at Yeung's on 41st Street for a third of the price -- though you'll have to settle for egg-drop or won-ton instead of matzo-ball soup.