Thursday, December 20, 2007

How To Have a Good Chinese Meal

Christmas is just around the corner, and everyone who's seen 'A Christmas Story' knows that Christmas means Chinese food. So, in the spirit of the season, I present my guideline to how to go out for a great Chinese dinner, on Christmas or any other day!

Step One: Find a good Chinese restaurant. This is an important step. There's no point in saying to everyone, "Hey! Let's go out to dinner!" and taking them all to Panda Express. You need to find a place that does really good Chinese food; this might involve one or more "scouting meals", just to find a place that suits. Look for the following good signs that the Chinese restaurant is authentic.

a) They have soy sauce at the table, in jars. The only reason a good Chinese restaurant has soy sauce in little packets is for their to-go customers.

b) The cook and/or owner (it's always a good sign if the owner is actually working in the restaurant) is actually Chinese.

c) Many of the customers are actually Chinese.

d) Members of the owner's family are helping out (waiting tables, cooking, et cetera.) Really good cooking tends to be a labor of love, and nothing says love like child labor.

e) The portions are nice and big. A good Chinese restaurant generally serves a single portion that acts as about a should have enough leftovers for either a snack later, or to feel really stuffed as you leave the restaurant. (This is why you take other people with you. See Step Two.)

f) They're open Christmas Day. See introduction.

Step Two: Select your group of people. Ideally, the total number of people in your group should be divisible by three, just to make the portions work out well, but you're really more concerned with good conversation and fun people to hang out with, so don't be afraid to invite an extra person or two. You can always add on egg rolls or lo mein. If you don't have at least two friends you can go out for Chinese food with, go join a community theater group.

Step Three: Bring everyone to the restaurant. Do not order individually. This is vitally important. For one thing, you'll all wind up with way too much food. For another, the best part of eating Chinese is trying different dishes. Order two entrees for every three people, and try to vary the entrees as much as possible. If you have something you know is popular (having a favorite Chinese restaurant obviously means skipping Step One), go ahead and order multiples, but try to mix it up at least some. Passing around the entrees, piling your plate with different dishes, and telling people, "Mmm, you have to try this" is all part of the tradition. In the event of uncertainty, don't be afraid to order a bit extra...Chinese food makes great leftovers (although you'll need to cook fresh rice. Nothing tastes worse than reheated rice. It's like eating paste.)

Alternate Option: Order out, and have the food at home while watching a movie. (The only trick is to find a movie that will satisfy everyone concerned. No horror--you never know who might have a weak stomach. 'The Princess Bride' is never a bad choice for a large, mixed gathering, as only soulless demon-people dislike that film.)

So there you have it--the perfect guide to a fun night out. (In the Twin Cities, by the way, I recommend both 'Anna Chung's', in Eagan, and 'Seafood Palace', in Minneapolis. Both great family-owned restaurants that serve nice, big portions of great Chinese food. Try Anna's sesame chicken, it's the best in the world!)


Devi Shakti said...

Another sign of a good Chinese place: the tables are round, with a lazy susan in the center... the better to share dishes. You have your own plate in front of you, the dishes go on the lazy susan, spin and serve. :)

Austin Gorton said...

I've been to Anna Chung's-and loved it-but never had the sesame chicken. I'll have to give it a try.

Eric TF Bat said...

Chinese in Australia is a different thing again. Never heard of those "egg rolls", but we have the advantage that a "Chinese" restaurant often has intrusions of Malaysian, Vietnamese and even Thai, making for an even wider variety. Then, of course, there's the small town Chinese take-away, which a country yokel friend of mine calls "Chang Fang" (where Fang = tooth = food). A good Chang Fang has all the quality and quantity, along with inexplicably luminous glistening red sweet and sour sauce. For a proper Chang Fang meal, you must order Sweet and Sour Pork, Beef in Black Bean, Lemon Chicken, Honey Prawns and (if you're adventurous or under 35) Mongolian Lamb. Oh, and Fried Rice, which it is not OK to pronounce as Flied Lice. And Fried Dim Sims and (Meat) Spring Rolls for what we call entree, which you call appetisers because you call your main course entree, for reasons probably tied to that whole American food love/hate thing.

Oh, and here, the two thirds formula won't cut it: it's one entree (appetiser) each, then N+1 mains (entrees) for N people, plus steamed rice (or fried if you're a traditionalist).

See? Culture!

Tyson said...

Another sign to look for in Chinese restaurants: if they serve fortune cookies at the end of the meal, they're probably somewhat Americanized. If they serve orange slices, they're the real deal. (If they serve both fortune cookies and orange slices, they're the real deal, making concessions to the market.)

billjac said...

Don't throw out that leftover rice. It rejuvenates nicely with a quick stir fry in a very hot pan. Add a drizzle of soy sauce, a bit of scrambled egg and whatever vegetables you've got sitting in the fridge (chopped small and already cooked is best) and you've got an easy fried rice.

And one more tip for finding a good Chinese restaurant: never trust a place with a menu in good English. They're concentrating their efforts in the wrong place.

Anonymous said...

Be careful if it specifically caters to Chinese people- the local place near us that is aimed at a knowledgable Chinese market serves things like jellied duck tongues. I WANT my Chinese restaurants a little Americanized- have you ever watched Andrew Zimmern or Anthony Bourdain in China? They eat some WEIRD food!!
We like Ming's Palace in SE Minneapolis and Lai Inn in West Bloomington. House of Wing in Eagan has been around forever and they have tasty food too.