Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Adventures in Dining, or: No More Chicken Broccoli?

I decide it's time to go back to the New Chinatown restaurant. I have studied the little take-out menu I took home last time and picked out a couple of possibilities. I will not be done in by a man with a knowing smile or the words, "Hi! Chicken broccoli?"

Prepped, ready, and wearing my game face, I take a deep breath and open the door. The man I'm expecting to see behind the counter isn't there. It's the younger man, the one who seated me last time, and who doesn't know anything about my ordering history. I settle myself into an entirely different booth, and make a show of perusing the menu. I've already decided it's going to be either the Chinese mixed vegetables or eggplant in garlic sauce. I'm leaning more toward the second choice. I've had eggplant cooked a number of ways, and liked them all. My mom does a breaded, fried eggplant that's tasty, and I know I was served eggplant parmagiana somewhere. There's another Chinese place up the street that does something called "Wonderful Eggplant" that's pretty good.

I order eggplant in garlic sauce, steamed rice, and a big glass of diet cola, and settle down with my book (Revenge, by Stephen Fry -- I believe its European title is The Stars' Tennis Balls). As the waiter brings me my drink, a question flits through my mind: why it is that you could throw an egg roll in this town and probably hit a Chinese restaurant? We have at least 5. We're not really that big a town.

A few minutes later, the woman I always think of as "Ma" comes out of the kitchen with someone's take-out order. I don't know whether she owns the place, but she certainly runs it. She is always around here somewhere. I can't tell whether all her employees are relatives, because when not talking to customers they speak in Chinese and I can't tell what they're calling each other. But if body language and tone of voice are anything to go by, she's definitely the matriarch. She sees me and waves.

A bell rings in the kitchen, and she disappears into it, returning a moment later bearing what must be my order.

"Hi, how you doing? No more chicken broccoli?" She plunks down the plate in front of me, along with a little bowl of rice.

"No, I, um. I'm getting kind of bored with it." I'm staring at what she's brought me.

"Ah. Well, enjoy." And off she goes.

It looks like whale meat. Whale meat? Where did that comparison come from? I must be accessing some half-remembered memory from a sixth grade social studies movie about Eskimos. I wouldn't know whale meat if you pointed it out to me. Nevertheless, that is the phrase that leaps to mind: whale meat.

They must have used a whole eggplant. It's in big cubes, and it hasn't been skinned, so it's part black and shiny, part almost colorless. And the garlic sauce has added to the glossiness. It looks...weird.

Well, try it, for pity's sake. Quit acting like such a baby. Plenty of things that look strange turn out to be pretty good. Take caviar for example. I wonder who the first person was caught a female sturgeon, cleaned it, and said to himself, "Mmm, I bet that'd be good on toast." Mind you, I've never had caviar, and I doubt somehow I could make myself eat it.

I take a bite, and immediately wish I was dining with someone. Somebody should at least enjoy this experience. I'm sure the face I'm making is priceless. It's distress. It's an I-can't-spit-this-out-I'm-in-public face.

Have you ever had potato soup out somewhere, or maybe just a soup with potatoes in it? Maybe the soup has been simmering in a pot all day, maybe it was microwaved just after you ordered it (depends upon the sort of place you're in, I guess). Your first taste tells you that the broth is at the right temperature, and subsequent bites are all about the same. It doesn't occur to you that the bits of potato would be any different, right? And all the time, those potatoes are lying in wait, ready to make you cry, hoping you'll be stupid enough to not test them first before biting. Potatoes don't just retain heat, they hoard it.

Guess what? So does eggplant.

It is hot. It is eye-watering, palate-blistering, this-will-scorch-my-throat hot. Radioactive. I take a swig of soda, and that manages to cool things down enough that I can swallow it. I realize it was so hot that I couldn't pay attention to anything else, so I still don't know what it tastes like. I play around with a couple more pieces, opening them up a bit so that some of the steam (or whatever) can escape, and then I try again.

We have a texture problem. The skin is very chewy (just call it tough, why don't you), and the flesh is mush. As for taste...there is none. You'd think with the sauce, this stuff would have developed a garlicky flavor. Nope. Nothing. The sauce is great, though. Goes well with the rice.

I eat a few more pieces, because she's watching me. Probably because I think of her as "Ma," I feel I can't just leave it there on my plate. It would hurt her feelings. So I move it around a bit, trying to hide the fact that I'm mainly eating the rice, and go back to reading my book. All the while I'm watching her out of the corner of my eye. The second she heads back into the kitchen, I take the plate over to the trash can and dump half of it in. By the time she comes out of the kitchen I am back in my booth, looking like I never left. Whew.

When I go up to pay, she asks me how it was.

"It was okay," I answer. I don't say what we both know.

I'd have been better off with chicken and broccoli.

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