Even though I am a hungry, city-dwelling, curious, and open-minded eater, the foods I put in my mouth almost never surprise me. (Surprise me in a good way, I mean—one always finds the rogue toe bone in the goulash from time to time!) And I'm especially never ever surprised by the foods at my favorite restaurants, where the well-worn menus are as familiar as a fire sandwich to a salamander. But, SURPRISE! It happened.
A bit of history. You might think that Chiang's Gourmet, which squats in an unassuming and poorly demarcated parking lot on Lake City Way, is shaped like a giant sombrero (that's a Mexican hat traditionally worn by drunken white people on their birthdays). But if you think that, you are fucking stupid! Chiang's Gourmet is actually shaped like a giant root-beer keg sinking into a perfectly symmetrical pool of quicksand. This is because, when my mother was a teenager, the building housed an A&W Root Beer restaurant, where "sock hoppers" and "greasies" guzzled root-beer floats before going "neck-sucking" down in Quicksand Ravine. Eventually, neighborhood parents complained about their children—driven mad by lust and sassafras root—being dragged, two by two, to ignominious deaths at the bottom of the quicksand pits, and city officials banned root beer forever. (Quicksand Ravine was later converted into a Best Buy, reducing deaths by liquid-silt-inhalation by more than 50 percent.)
It's been a Chinese restaurant ever since.
My friends and I go to Chiang's Gourmet a couple times a month, at least. We go for the Homemade Pan-Fried Noodles Shanghai Style (with chicken, $8), the Mongolian Beef ($12), the Vegetarian Spare Ribs (crispy fried business wrapped around a "bone" made of taro, $11), the Eggplant with Hot Spicy Garlic Sauce ($10). And, oh, the Dry Sauteed String Beans ($10)! So good. So, so good. Chiang's has four menus: the traditional Chinese menu, the whitey (or "American") menu, the vegetarian menu (ask for it by name!), and the weekend brunch menu. The weekend brunch menu, made-to-order Taiwanese dim sum, is what got me surprise-wise. IT GOT ME GOOD.
A friend and I trundled sleepily up to Chiang's one Saturday morning, 11:30-ish, for a hangover-wicking early lunch. We were feeling particularly whitey that day—moo shu was to be had, Mongolian beef, maybe even some ridiculous fried abomination like General Tso's. We were sleepy! The world was our Americanized Chinese oyster. The short-haired, vest-clad, matter-of-fact woman who appears to run the place greeted us warmly. "Do you want the special breakfast menu?" she asked, walking us to our table. "Um, okay," we responded. "But can we have the regular menu, too?" She looked at us like we were stupid. "Why? You can have that anytime. The special menu is so good! Special menu!" Once she was gone, we agreed to order our regular business, along with one thing off the special weekend menu—some dumpling or whatever—so she wouldn't be mad. It was a foolproof plan.
She returned. "We'll have this, um, leek—" we began, indicating some dumpling or whatever. "What? No." Again, the look. We might as well have tried to order bowls of quicksand. "Not that. I'll just bring you things you will like. You'll be happy. It's good." She left. It was settled.
Then the things came: each completely new to me, each a marvel of simplicity and novelty and deliciousness. First up was Baked Cake Wrapped with Sour Vegetable and Ground Pork ($4), a flaky, sesame-seed-studded, paperback-sized Hot Pocket stuffed with pork and tangy, lightly pickled cabbage. The fact that this food—hot, peppery, eaten with both hands—is not available 24/7, served from a cart outside my front door, is a crime against humanity, and I will be contacting the UN. Next was another incarnation of the same, Baked Cake Wrapped with Scramble Eggs ($4), with a Chinese doughnut (Fritter of Twisted Dough, $1.50) sandwiched in the middle. (A third version, with beef brisket, chili sauce, and cilantro, appeared on a later visit.)
Instead of our familiar Pan-Fried Noodles, we received the Home Made Noodles, Ground Pork, and Diced Dry Bean Curd with Bean Paste Sauce ($8), a mountain of noodles topped with fresh, cold, julienned cucumber and a pungent mixture of ground pork, über-finely-chopped tofu, and more garlic than you thought possible for human consumption. The mixture was refreshing and indulgent and satisfying.
Then she brought us the won-tons (Steamed Wonton with Hot Spicy Sauce, $5) and showed us how to eat them—with a spoon, with plenty of sauce. The world quietly devolved into madness. The sauce was bright, deep, smoky, spicy. Completely unfamiliar but not at all jarring. "WHAT IS IN THIS SAUCE?" She laughed at us. It's just chili oil, she explained, some vinegar, dry pickle, and the "numb spice," or Szechuan peppercorn. Szechuan peppercorn—a magical fucking seedpod that tastes like heaven and makes your mouth tingly. Imports of Szechuan peppercorn were banned until 2005. "The government thought it was a drug or something, I don't know," she told us. We ate every drop of the sauce. Clearly, the government was right.
And, finally, the most surprising and perfect food of the day: Sweet Rice Round Dumpling Wrapped with Fritter of Twisted Dough, Dried Shredded Meat, and Seaweed ($4). This is a crazy food. It is a log of sticky rice, swaddled tightly in plastic wrap. At the center of the log is a Chinese doughnut. Surrounding the doughnut is a layer of sparkly, salty pork floss filaments. Then—this is the part where our brains broke—a layer of powdered seaweed mixed with granulated sugar. Then the rice. You peel the plastic back and eat it like a burrito. It's salty, sweet, crunchy, sticky—all of the things that good food is supposed to be in one strange little rice log.
I have been going to Chiang's since I was a little baby child and it was called the New Peking. Lake City Way rushes past, the Moo Shu Pork is still there, the lazy Susans remain. Things are familiar. But in more than two decades, I never, ever thought to ask for a sticky rice log filled with seaweed, sugar, and pork. What have I been doing with my life? I may as well have been eating quicksand.