Emmy Award-winning Chef Ming Tsai, owner of Blue Ginger Restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, once described American Chinese food as “adapted … to be blander, thicker, and sweeter for the American public.”
Accordingly, if a menu serves “chop suey” (“fried vegetables and ‘some protein’ in a thick sauce”) and a multiplicity of seemingly regional Chinese cuisines (Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese, etc.), you are dining in a North American Chinese restaurant. Dishes are likely not “authentic.”
North American Chinese dishes seem optimized to be prepared quickly with just a wok, either stir fried or deep fried. Many can be easily “held” or cooked from frozen.
Native Chinese dishes feature fresh meat and seafood. They incorporate prized “choy” (greens) like gai lan (Chinese broccoli). Depending on the region, native dishes can be poached, braised, steamed, roasted, or baked to produce balances of contrasting flavours and textures.
Dishes like General Tso’s chicken, wonton soup, hot and sour soup, sweet and sour pork, chicken balls, ginger beef, crispy beef, egg rolls, and lemon chicken are foreign fare in China. Native Chinese versions of beef and broccoli, egg foo young, and even fried rice differ markedly from what is familiar in Canada or the United States.
The word “cuisine” comes from the French language, denoting a style of cooking that produces food characteristic of a country or region. Unlike Tsai, many look upon North American Chinese food as a cuisine; something that arose due to immigrants having to adapt to readily available ingredients and local appetites.
And, North American Chinese food can be made well.
Still, I find North American Chinese food overwhelming: too sweet, too oily, too much. That is until one of Ottawa’s longstanding purveyors of “General Tso”, crispy beef, “pepper salt squid”, and (Hunan) dumplings took over Mellos on Dalhousie (290) for an evening.Remember this past summer’s Chef’s Playground, hosted by California taco purveyor Jon Reilley-Roe? Every Sunday, he invited local chefs to prepare and serve their takes on the taco at his cinder block shack turned taqueria, called Tacolot (999 Wellington Street W.). Proceeds went to local charitable causes. Well, with Tacolot having no enclosed dining room, Reilly-Roe now slings his tacos at its sister location on Gladstone (707), Hang 10.
Chef’s Playground has also moved indoors with Reilley-Roe partnering with Martin Fremeth, owner of Mellos. On Mondays, guest chefs partner with “After Dark” chef Mike Franks and sous David Reed for takeovers. Already, Chefs Simon Bell of Oz Kafe (361 Elgin Street) and Chris Tache and Joe O’Shaughness of Chez Eric took over the kitchen at the 70s era diner that opened in the 40s.
Two Mondays ago, restaurateur Ruby Luc of Mekong (637 Somerset Street W.) collaborated with Franks and Reed to serve a North American Chinese themed multi-course dinner ($22.95 per person).
[Prodigiously crusted pork-filled dumplings with fried shallots, peanut sauce, and soy scallion sauce.]
[Gently breaded and freshly fried crisp to order, Franks' take on Mekong's General Tso's chicken reminded me of Japanese "popcorn" chicken served at ramen noodle houses and izakayas, called karaage.]
[Chinese feasts often include several communally-served courses, culminating in a fried rice or noodle dish. It is fitting Franks' ode to Mekong multi-course ended with noodles to ensure guests do not leave hungry. It was a revelation to me this traditionally meat-laden dish worked so well with the house pickled mustard greens. The greens' fermented tang cut the noodles' savouriness and oil.]
What Franks’ interpretations of Mekong’s most popular dishes demonstrated to me is moderation. While slightly chef-y, North American Chinese Food does not have to be overwhelming if well plated. The best example is the karaage-reminiscent General Tso’ chicken. Fried crisp, pieces weren’t dripping in an overly rich or cloyingly sweet sauce.Ruby echoed my observations, pointing out Franks is very knowledgeable about oriental food. Twice, she told Fremeth she was going to steal him for her restaurant, only half joking.
“He knows more about Chinese food than I do,” laughed Ruby. “He eats chiles like crazy. He even uses a cleaver!”
She then told me the story of Mekong. I was taken aback by how she and her husband established the venerable restaurant in 1985. Dennis worked the back of house. Ruby coordinated the menu and worked the front. Their kids taste tested the dishes.
In its first incarnation, Mekong was a pho noodle house. When it became apparent then Ottawa had no interest in Vietnamese food, the Lucs learned a lesson about catering to their diners. They dumped the menu in favour of hot and sour soup, lemon chicken, and General Tso’s chicken. Only rice paper rolls and deep fried spring rolls remained. Eventually, they added more dishes, including Peking Duck.
Praising her cooks, Ruby is particularly proud of more recent South Asian menu additions: shrimp lollipops; lemongrass shrimp; curried chicken with sweet potato and coconut cream; and satay.
“Nowhere else in town serves satay the way we do,” explained Ruby.
Service is why Ruby feels Mekong has outlasted so many of the restaurants in the neighbourhood. They have a private dining room on the second floor. The atmosphere is meant to be cozy.
Mekong’s longevity likely also has to do with Ruby’s charisma. A perfect host, she has made many friends over the years. In fact, for her takeover, Mellos’ seats were filled with friends and acquaintances.
Everyone came for Ruby, but stayed for the food.
Next Monday (February 4th), Luigi Meliambro of Cheezy Luigi’s pizzeria will be on hand. But, it won’t be pizza he serves. Meliambro will bring Bootleg Porchetta, which is made by Mike Nicastro of Il Negozio Nicastro.
290 Dalhousie Street
Belated Friday Appendix: #GoodEatsBlogs
Starting with this post, we will append “end of week” posts with recipe links to inspire your inner home cook. The recipes come from local bloggers. This week, we would like to share three “degrees” of food.
Let’s start things off with Candace Derickx’s “Pub-Style Chicken Curry.” A milder take, Derickx’s recipe looks to be a good way to ease a family into the world of Indian curries.
Employing a prepared Thai red curry paste, Andrea Tomkins shared a quick dinner solution, the “Salmon Burger Slider.” Disguised as burgers, her normally finicky-at-the-table kids didn’t leave a crumb behind.
Speaking of salmon, if we mosey over to Rebecca Stanisic’s blog, she wrote up an oven-baked salmon dish that employs a maple and Dijon glaze. Imagine this glaze on planked salmon steaks or fillets on the gas or charcoal grill.
Tags: #GoodEatsBlogs, Chef's Playground, featured, General Tso's Chicken, Mellos, North American Chinese Food