There's good Chinese food, and then there's bad Chinese food the latter being something in which Miami-Dade County specializes. Sadly, though, this category also includes a whole subgenre of food that isn't necessarily bad at all. It is sneered at merely because it is Chinese-American rather than authentic regional Chinese cuisine.
Like Italian-American cuisine, Chinese-American is fusion food. Unlike today's fusion flights of imagination, however, both of the earlier cuisines were developed not from any desire to be fashionably different, but out of necessity. The first waves of Italian and Chinese immigrants found few traditional ingredients here, while certain other ingredients that were in short supply back home (like meat) were readily available and relatively cheap. So they adapted their traditional recipes according to dearths and bounties, and came up with spaghetti and meatballs, steak kew, and scores of other dishes that suggested their homelands but had never existed there.
When authenticity became the ethnic cuisine buzzword among foodies, hyphenated cuisines fell into disrepute. Luckily (for all but the terminally pretentious) Italian-American cuisine has, since the late Nineties, been yanked out of the bad joke bin thanks to experts like Lidia Bastianich, a renowned regional Italian chef who has proclaimed Italian-American food "the crowning glory of the Italian immigrants." But Chinese-American food hasn't yet been so fortunate. For most of us, even the tastiest examples are still a guilty pleasure, something we refer to as "good bad Chinese food."
5902 W 16th St, Hialeah
; 305-557-0500. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday noon to 10:00 p.m.
Well, it's time the stuff got some respect. Consider this review of Dragon a humble but generally very satisfying Hialeah joint that's decidedly Chinese-American (despite ownership by a family from Canton) the opening gun.
Take Dragon's egg foo yung. It is definitely not traditional Chinese fu yung don. But one doesn't always want a fluffy, pristine preparation of shrimp-spiked scrambled eggs cooked in minimal oil and served with no sauce, however authentic it may be. Sometimes one craves a roast-pork-packed omelet like Dragon's, its edges succulently crisp from deep-frying yet its middle moist, topped with sauce that's neither too watery nor too viscous just darn good gravy. It is perfect Chinese-American comfort food.
Egg rolls also don't exist in China; spring rolls do. And undeniably the latter finger-size item, with typically delicate pork/shrimp/bean-sprout filling wrapped in paper-thin skin, is more elegant. But a fine egg roll is also possible, when the filling is not, like typical frozen egg rolls, overwhelmed by American celery. Dragon's egg rolls could benefit from more discernible diced pork and/or shrimp for textural interest, but the amount used does flavor the crisp, mainly cabbage filling sufficiently that no drowning in duck sauce was necessary.
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The hefty rolls are available à la carte or on a pu pu platter that also includes two tender but overbattered shrimp; six plump wontons stuffed with either ground pork or creamy faux-crab; four roast pork slices subtly spiced with five-fragrance powder; and two of the most succulent spareribs I've ever eaten huge specimens, slightly sweet and bursting with juice.
Kung Pao shrimp, listed as a special, was a mixed success sauce nicely sweet/sour balanced and not overly cornstarch-thickened, but shrimp disappointing: tiny, flaccid, dry, frozen-tasting. Additionally there were no peanuts. In Guiyang, probable originating town of Gong Bao preparations, peanuts are considered a no-no, but in this case, authenticity is no improvement.
Legend has it, chop suey is an all-American invention. More likely it is a seat-of-one's-pants take on tsap seui, a dish of stir-fried "chopped bits" from Toisan, south of Canton. In this rural town, from which many nineteenth-century immigrants hailed, the bits were unspeakable pork innards. Dragon's "house special" mix of roast pork, chicken, and shrimp is much more reassuring; the dish's mostly Chinese vegetables including bok choy rather than American celery provide ample exoticism.
But what I miss most in Miami isn't tasty Chinese-American food it's a Chinatown like San Francisco's (or Vancouver's or New York's), packed with authentic Chinese eateries. Still there's no fighting it: When one is in the mood for chop suey, tsap seui will not do.