'Tis the Season
. . . to Eat Middling Chinese Food
This year marks the 10th anniversary of San Francisco's Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, a popular Christmastime cabaret created by comedian Lisa Geduldig, ostensibly for Jewish people "with nothing to do" on Christmas Day but "hide under the covers, contemplate midnight Mass, or visit a Chinese restaurant." Expanded to eight shows over four days, and held once again this year at the New Asia Restaurant, the publicity materials announce: "Celebrate Christmas the Jewish way . . . in a Chinese restaurant with Jewish comedy!"
I suspect it's a post-World War-II phenomenon, but I could find no source material on the origins of the practice, supposedly widespread, of Jews eating out at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day. I was even more particularly interested, though, in how and when this custom came to be widely understood and acknowledged by not only non-Jews but Jewish people who never actually observe the custom but still reflexively respond, when asked what they're doing on Christmas Day, that they' re, ha ha, probably going to go to the movies and eat Chinese food.
What ran common among the writings I found on the subject (mostly on blog sites) was a sense that the phenomenon of eating Chinese on Christmas was, for Jews, not just something to do, but an overtly self-conscious act of cultural self-identification. A large part of the act's pleasure is seeing yourself perform it.
What I became more interested in discovering--after a recent boring meal--was how Szechuan and Hunan food became so dull. I remember the seismic shift in American Chinese restaurants from Cantonese to Szechuan food--in Baltimore, this happened in the early 1980s with the opening of Uncle Lee's on Greenmount Avenue. But, then what happened? When and how did Szechuan restaurants devolve into purveyors of pedestrian comfort food, so that in movies, we recognize characters as being lonely or depressed when they order in large quantities of kung pao chicken and moo shu pork?
With the bar of culinary expectations thus somewhat lowered, Hunan Szechuan managed to skip over by providing attentive service, goodly portions, and decent preparations of classic Szechuan and Hunan dishes. Located in the Hillendale Shopping Center, at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue, Hunan Szechuan looks on the outside, like your generic strip-mall Szechuan restaurant, circa 1986. The sense of having eaten at a restaurant just like this one a thousand times before was reinforced once inside the long dining room, with its rows of rose-colored banquettes, where we set about studying our paper place mats, discovering our various compatabilities as rabbits, rats, and dragons.
The menu arrangement and selections at Hunan Szechuan are familiar, too, with a smattering of such Cantonese favorites as egg foo young and chow mein retained for their diehard fans. If not much has changed over the years at storefront Chinese restaurants, prices have remained more or less stable, too, with entrées hovering in the $10 range. My four dining companions and I ordered a pu pu platter for 3 ($14.25), which came with shrimp tempura, shrimp toast, cho-cho beef, fried won tons, chicken in cellophane (aka paper chicken, but really wrapped in tin foil), and spring rolls. It was a bad start, with overbreading and greasiness predominating. (Here, we have to define terms. Shrimp toast is a "bad" food item, but there is such a thing as good, unadulterated, guilt-inducing, comforting shrimp toast. This wasn't it.)
Somewhat nicer was the scallion pancake ($2.95), a personal favorite of mine, which here was only slightly rubbery and its accompanying sauce overly salty. Soups included a passable pork won ton soup ($1.50) and a shrimp soup with vegetables ($4.75 for 2), which had a pleasant enough flavor but not enough fresh vegetables, with the carrots and peas appearing to be of the canned variety.
Entrées fared better with our party, but oversized platters of meat and vegetables tend to evoke sympathetic responses among the people I hang with. It was noted, though, that the proportion of meat to vegetables was more favorable here than is sometimes the case. On the other hand, most of the dishes tasted uncharacteristically sugary. Of the two beef platters ordered, the Hunan beef ($11.95) and the beef with mushrooms ($8.95), the former had the better quality meat and the tastier sauce. The beef served with the mushrooms was a little tough, the accompanying sauce too strong.
The Szechuan chicken ($8.25) was loaded with tender breast meat but had too many thickly cut onions, and was, again, too sugary. Ordered from the specials menu, the seafood bird's nest ($12.95) arrived with ample bits of shrimp, scallops, and squid, but the white sauce was starchily bland and the nest and vegetables didn't assemble into a pretty enough showpiece. Best of all was a sizzling platter of shrimp, beef, and chicken, accompanied by carrots and large florets of broccoli ($11.95), but it still wasn't a sit-up-and-take notice dish.
Only a few other tables were occupied on a recent Wednesday night, although we did see a steady stream of people coming for carry-out orders. Somewhere, possibly in another strip mall (possibly even at another strip mall intersected by Taylor and Loch Raven), there must be a restaurant reinventing the language of American-Chinese cuisine. Although it's very likely a perfectly decent purveyor of carry-out and delivery cuisine, Hunan Szechuan is not that place.
Merry Christmas to all: Omnivore@citypaper.com.