A Tale of Two Menus
While it's true that Chinese food isn't as favored in this country as it was before the Asian invasion of Thai and Japanese eateries, it remains a staggeringly popular dinner choice. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are nearly 36,000 Chinese restaurants in America, which is more than all McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King franchises combined.
Like those national chains, you can walk into a Chinese joint in Topeka, Tallahassee, or Tucson and find a familiar lineup of inexpensive, generically prepared foods: egg rolls, wonton soup, spare ribs, cashew chicken, and so forth. The dining rooms will probably seem alike as well, most decorative schemes falling into one of two categories: the more upscale places, lushly padded in reds and golds; and the scrungier, strip-mall types defined by sparse dining rooms whose walls are pasted with Chinese scrolls and a few random pieces of "artwork." Restaurants in either class are equally prone to displaying an aquarium crammed with large, morose fish, which I find disconcerting to look at while attempting to savor a crispy-fried snapper.
Lung Gong, located in a strip mall on SW Eighth Street near FIU, fits on the lower end of the ambiance spectrum. There is no fish tank, nor much other visual stimulation besides red paper lanterns and a couple of red paper dragons suspended from the ceiling, smaller versions of the sort carried on sticks during Chinese New Year celebrations. Lung Gong, in other words, looks like any of its local and national counterparts. But the sweeping breadth and awesome authenticity of the menu sets this place apart from the masses.
I should say authenticity of one of the menus, as upon being seated each diner is handed two different listings. The yellow one offers Cantonese standards such as egg rolls, chow mein, chop suey, sweet-and-sour dishes, and a pu pu platter. The one whose pages are sky blue with white cloud patterns is a compilation of foods that perhaps you won't find in Topeka, like beef heart, tongue, and stomach with Szechuan sauce; jellyfish salad; pig ear in special sauce; soya marinated pork feet -- and those are just some of the starters. Main courses include spicy pig intestine with pork blood and tofu in fire pot, pork tongue, pork liver, pork ribs....
I read these aloud at the table, then proposed we order all the pork parts to see if we couldn't reconstruct some messy semblance of a whole pig. "How about some egg foo young?" interrupted one of my dinner guests, holding aloft his yellow menu like a placard at a political rally. I like family-style dining, but there is a downside to this democratic means of ordering, which I evidently was about to encounter.
The table voted me down on various jellied items, and also vetoed organ-related choices, so many of which were available that I scanned the menu to check whether "lung gong" might refer to a specific dish. Things were looking grim, but I managed to shrewdly cobble together a fragile coalition of vegetarians and foodie wannabes in getting through an order for wheat dough with black mushrooms and dried lily flower. We were all the better for it, the "wheat dough" thin, chewy noodles, the "lily flowers" a thick, spongy, dried-mushroom-flavored bean curd -- like a love child of morel and tofu.
The vegetarians deserted me when it came to green bean starch sheet with shredded chicken salad (my rallying cry of "Today green bean starch sheets, tomorrow zucchini starch sheets!" didn't sway a soul), but I mustered the support of enough curiosity seekers to attain a majority. The "starch sheet" turned out to be flat, semitransparent noodles with the jiggly elasticity of sukiyaki, tantalizing in tandem with tender strips of chicken breast, sesame seed-coated matchsticks of cucumber, and a zesty sesame-peanut dressing studded with peanuts aplenty. Another winner.
The rest of the ordering required no lobbying. We all agreed on "spicy wonton soup," first cheering the bright infusion of steamed bok choy, soon lamenting the heavy pour of chili oil that formed a slick upon each spoonful. Hot-and-sour soup possessed more tang than most versions, its dark brown base generously plumped with tofu and mushrooms.
Pork spareribs with "salty pepper flavor" weren't served as whole ribs but rather hacked into tasty bite-size nuggets crusted with a dusting of -- well, salty pepper seasonings. "Little juicy steamed pork buns" were five dumplings of thick, wet, noodle dough wrapped around small balls of bland, minced pork -- not mini renditions of New York Chinatown's puffy white buns I'd expected. These were disappointing even as dumplings, though I'd get my puffy steamed pastry later via a dessert of scrumptious sweet red bean buns.
Cold spicy Szechuan noodles didn't garner much enthusiasm around the table, the mix of hot chili paste and more salty pepper flavor intriguing upon first bite, less so with each successive one. The same cold noodles mingled with a spicy sesame paste, just one of numerous dishes that delighted the vegetarian faction.
Lung Gong's owners are from Peking, the chef from Szechuan, and no dish showcases his naturally piquant instincts more vividly than a main course of tender conch slices crunchily stir fried with bell peppers, lots of ginger, and searing red chili peppers. The tears running down my cheeks reflected both pain and joy, and kept rolling through a bountiful portion of tofu cubes in a thicker, shinier, equally fiery chili sauce speckled with minced pork and scallions.
Purple eggplant in a mildly spicy, slightly sweetened, garlic-laden brown sauce elicited praise from my dining companions, as did the way scrambled eggs blanketed the top of a "young chow fried rice" studded with an overload of baby shrimp and diced roast pork. A chopped-up half hen crisply stir fried with bell peppers earned equal accolades, but hardly any words were spoken about the tender morsels of beef flank stewed with malanga in coconut-laced brown sauce, nor for "bay leaves duck," whose smoky, exotic, laurel-and-five-spice aromatics emanated in all directions. They were so good we were left speechless.
The dim sum menu at Lung Gong is long gone, but a handful of items remains. One of these, sweet potato cakes, is served as dessert, and it's a dandy -- eight fast-food-hamburger-size patties, each with wispy, pan-fried crust and mildly gelatinous, sweetly delicious sweet potato purée inside. Anyone who enjoys this tuber will find these discs irresistible, as surely as anyone who treasures the unique allure of authentic Chinese cooking will be absolutely agog about Lung Gong. For everyone else, there's the yellow menu.
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