A month ago, our favorite Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood closed down and left a gaping hole in our culinary life.
Chinese restaurants are, as you might expect, rather common here. But this one was special: it was owned and managed by an older gentleman named Perkins, who spoke completely fluent English. He, it turned out, had spent many vacations visiting family in the U.S. and even driven through my hometown. His restaurant served dishes from all across China, another happy eccentricity. Across our first five months here, with Perkins as our guide, we were gradually being introduced to more and more “real” Chinese dishes. The man was something akin to an expert sushi chef, who would, in the course of small talk, decipher what we really needed and order it for us. Under his expert tutelage, we began to experience all manner of soups, vegetables and fish dishes we had never before encountered. It was marvelous.
But now he’s gone. And without him, we were having trouble summoning the adventurousness to find a new Chinese favorite.
I’ll freely admit that we are often intimidated by the truly local joints, either because they’re packed with smoking taxi cab drivers, completely empty except for some desperate looking wait staff, or feature a menu entirely without pictures or the few simple characters I can recognize. Of course, we know some simple favorites in Mandarin, but how many times can anyone eat pork/beef/chicken, eggplant, green vegetable, and rice in any six months? Further, after a few bouts with stomach ailments, I have found myself reluctant to be too adventurous when it comes to spice or sanitation. This had knocked off our second favorite Chinese restaurant, a Uyguhr place down the street that was a little bit of a stretch on both counts.
Two weeks ago, my wife realized that we’d gone too long avoiding the issue. We could not live in China and eat Chinese any less than twice a week. We had to stop grieving for Perkins and move on. We cheated for a bit and went to the basement food court of Carrefour, with an abundance of little Chinese food stalls available on a point and shoot basis. Then we were taken to an exquisite Chinese gourmet restaurant that made us reluctant to taste anything inferior. We ate our fill of baozi and fried dough from the street food vendors, but we knew were just stalling. Soon we were staring at a series of trips to Japanese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Japanese-Italian, and even a Mexican place, and feeling more than a little ridiculous. We had to admit that we’d grown accustomed to getting our Chinese food too easily and were now scared to fight for it like real travelers.
We had to start small. We choked up some courage and pushed ourselves to visit Dumpling Master. D.M. is a clean and trendy looking chain shop with a cuisine that might be easily inferred from its name. We had tried to go here before, shortly after it opened, but were deterred by the wordy menu and confused expressions from the wait staff. But dumplings sounded particularly good and the cleanliness was a big draw. This time, we were speedily seated, but again brought totally illegible menus. We began to try and piece together how and what to order, based off of price and a total of three pictures, when our waiter came up. Good service in China seems to be indicated by standing over a table from the moment the customers sit down until they finishing ordering. The pressure mounted and we couldn’t even figure out what came with what and when. We looked at each other and wondered aloud whether we should just give up and leave.
Then, our server crouched down and looked at our menus and, clearly understanding our plight, said in English, “Maybe I can help?”