I’ve mentioned before how Robert Sietsema is one of my favourite food writers. This year, he published a new book, New York in a Dozen Dishes, that I’m currently making my way through. Each chapter is dedicated to a dish that represents the indelible mark that a culture has left on this city. Some of the dishes are obvious (pizza), some not so much (scrambled brains). At the end of each chapter, he lists restaurants where you can find representative versions and provides a recipe.
Like my American counterparts, the Chinese food I grew up around in 1980s Canada was largely Westernized. Especially at the establishments that were conveniently located and had entirely English menus. The dishes that I remember the most include pineapple chicken balls, ginger beef, and peaches and cream shrimp (which I think had a sauce of mayo and canned peaches). Sietsema’s Egg Foo Yong chapter has been a favourite so far as it’s a dish I’d never tried before and I find the history of American-Chinese food / the ingenuity of marginalized Chinese immigrants fascinating. Shortly after reading the chapter, I watched the fun and educational documentary The Search for General Tso on Netflix, which told many of the same history lessons while going on a quest to learn the origins of an iconic American-Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken. Another dish I’d never tried.
I found myself one weekend night at home with no desire to go out and no desire to cook, but toast would not suffice. Remembering that Sietsema had recommended a Chinese take-out joint in my neighbourhood for egg foo yong, I decided to have my first Chinese delivery experience as a New Yorker. King Food Chen. Within the confines of the Upper West Side and with Seinfeld queued on Hulu, I would be living the dream. So, obviously I relayed over the phone that I wanted egg foo yong (I went with shrimp), General Tso’s chicken, and an egg roll. Rice came with both dishes. My buzzer was pressed about 20 minutes later. Paying just under $20 with tip, I almost had enough food for three.
It would be hard to find anything wrong with a hot, crispy pastry filled with vegetables (and maybe some meat?). Sure, it needs to be dipped for flavour (I mixed the included duck and hot sauces) and could be more heavily seasoned, but the wrapper was not at all greasy and despite my fear of delivery/take-out temperatures, it was piping hot. And the rest was hot enough for most people’s standards, too. I was impressed.
The three egg foo tong disks/patties were browned and fluffy, with only a trace amount of the wok’s oil left behind. The interior was a creamy yellow, lightly dotted with vegetables like scallions and onions. Each patty had about six small shrimp, which was more than I was expecting. It tasted pretty much like an omelette with a crispy shell would taste, no more or less. But the gravy that goes on top was completely flavourless, and if I order this again, I will ignore it. Hot sauce is a better condiment. Sietsema had described that take-out egg foo yong should ideally be packaged with the patties and gravy separately, and King Food Chen came through in this regard.
Based on the looks of the General Tso’s chicken, I thought I would hate it. The gloopy sauce and breaded chicken pieces reminded me of all the food court Chinese food I’ve stayed away from. I don’t know if it was hunger or a more open palate, but I really liked it. The large chunks of both white and dark meat were moist and of a quality much higher than I was expecting. Nothing chewy or stringy. The versions of the dish I saw in the documentary all had a sauce that was more red in colour and usually only contained broccoli. My sauce was more of a pale brown and had a few pieces of standard stir fry vegetables. My understanding is that the sauce should be both spicy and sweet (watch the doc to see the amount of sugar added), but mine was mostly just sweet. There were some visible chili flakes, but heat only came after I added hot sauce. The chicken was indeed sticky, but I didn’t mind it so much, and actually liked getting my rice coated in it.
Hunger may have clouded my judgement some, but not enough to deter me from ordering from them again. I hear it’s going to be a hard winter, and I will need more slightly-bland-but-addictive egg rolls. Perhaps I should see how their General Tso’s shrimp stacks up? Or should I try the Hunan chicken? Moo Shu pork? Oh, all the things I’ve missed out on.