* * *
When a Chinese person urges me to try a specific Chinese restaurant in Omaha, I take that recommendation seriously.
This month, when my friend Ying Zhu, an Omaha artist and a judge on the September Chinese Food Prowl for sweet and sour pork, suggested we meet at P.F. Chang's, I looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“P.F. Chang?” I questioned. “By the Westroads?”
I'd heard right.
So that's how I found myself sitting in a booth between Ying and this month's other judge, Courtney Bruntz, with whom I traveled to Beijing and Shanghai a year ago, at the first chain restaurant we've ever set foot in during a Food Prowl.
The astonishing variations between the five dishes we sampled this month are hard to believe. Sauces were different, cooking techniques mixed and seasonings and ingredients all contrasted at our five stops, which themselves ran the gamut in atmosphere and service. The sweet and sour pork prowl was one of the most challenging — and most intriguing — Food Prowls yet. It caught us all off guard with its complexity. It made us rethink things.
A lot of people challenged me on the idea of prowling for sweet and sour pork, what they classified as “Americanized Chinese.” But we chose it for a reason — both Ying, who is from Lanzhou, in northwest China, and Courtney, who lived in the country for three years, said sweet and sour is real-deal Chinese food. There's Chinese sweet and sour, and American sweet and sour. We found both in Omaha.
In that booth at P.F. Chang's, we ordered a plate of sweet and sour pork, a plate of stir fried broccoli, two pots of tea, and brown and white rice. I asked Ying why she wanted to go to P.F. Chang's in the first place. I was, to put it mildly, skeptical.
The cooking style at P.F. Chang's is close to how people cook in China, she said, with high heat and big woks. The food isn't drowned in sauce, like it is in lots of other places she's tried in Omaha. Her husband, who is also Chinese, often comes here for lunch. Once he was pleasantly surprised to find food hot enough to satisfy his idea of spicy — being from the Sichuan province, his tastes tend toward the really hot.
The decor was the nicest of the places we visited. Courtney, a Buddhist scholar and visiting professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, identified the different Buddha statues around the restaurant and told us the stories of the big mural hanging in the center of the restaurant. The decor, it turns out, is legit.
But at the same time, the restaurant was also the most “American,” and Ying was the only Chinese person in the place.
“If you think about the idea of normalizing and 'Americaninzing' Chinese food,” Courtney said, “this is the place that does it. Which might not be all bad.”
Our food arrived, a plate of small and medium-sized chunks of pork, lightly breaded and glazed in a brownish-orange sauce. Chunks of pineapple, red bell pepper, onion and bright red candied ginger were scattered through the stir-fry.
In China, both judges told me, sweet and sour pork is just that: a pile of pork with a glaze. Additions like peppers and onions and pineapple are American, and their guess is that those are added to make the dish more colorful and to vary the textures.
The size of the chunks in this version of the dish were nearly small enough, Ying said. They should be the size of small nuggets. There wasn't too much sauce, as she predicted. In fact, as we reached the bottom of the dish, just a few smears remained on the platter.
It tasted sweet but not too sweet, and the breading was crisp with crunchy, tasty edges. The bits of bright ginger added heat, though Ying and Courtney agreed that should have been in the sauce instead.
I had to admit, it was good. It was really good. And I was surprised.
“This is a good representation of Chinese cuisine,” Ying said. “Even though the people eating here don't realize that.”
Sweet and Sour is thought to have originated in Hunan province. In China, its made by mixing sugar or honey with rice vinegar, soy sauce and spices, like ginger and cloves, and spooned over cooked protein so it coats lightly. The “red stuff,” originally made in America using tomato paste, has morphed into the super sweet, food-colored sauce that's so familiar today at Chinese takeout joints.
We met again at a place I'd been many times, New Gold Mountain, in West Omaha. Ying thought if we ordered the sweet and sour pork off the menu, we might get the neon red sauce. And we did, with a plate of sweet and sour tofu. The tofu came plain with a huge bowl of red stuff on the side. It was way more sweet than sour and none of us cared for it.
The other dish, which Ying ordered after talking to the chef in Mandarin, was closer to the traditional sweet and sour recipe. The sauce on that dish was a little sticky and a little too light in color — golden instead of brown. The pork, in long slices instead of small squares, was off in shape but had a rich flavor and tender texture. The owner said he was missing one ingredient he'd liked to have used in the sauce, wine, but he'd make it for us without.
Ying liked that this sauce was clearly made by hand and didn't cover the flavor of the meat.
“In China, sweet and sour pork is a very common dish, but it's also hard to make,” she said. “The meat can be bad or the sauce can be off.”
The meat here was fine — good, even. But the sauce, with its too-sticky texture, wasn't what we were after.
We sped downtown from West Omaha to one of Omaha's oldest restaurants, King Fong, which closes at 2 p.m. I rushed through the door with five minutes to spare.
If you've never been to King Fong, tucked away on a second level spot on 16th Street between Farnam and Harney, get there. It's worth it for the incredible atmosphere alone: Intricately carved booths, ornate chandeliers, rich wood tables inlaid with real mother of pearl and green lamps on the wall each with their own switch below.
We ordered two dishes, vegetable chow mein sub gum, and sweet and sour pork. Ordering “sub gum” means that the kitchen adds tomatoes and almonds to the dish. The big chunks of pork in the sweet and sour were tougher and drier than we would have liked, and it came with too much brown sauce. We enjoyed the chow mein, with its old-school crunchy noodles on the bottom and vegetables coated in a white sauce.
“This is what Americanized Chinese used to be before peanut butter chicken,” Courtney said.
We found that distinctly modern style of Americanized Chinese at Happy Family Chinese, which is a few tables in a corner of an Asian market on north 72nd Street.
The restaurant has a menu in English with the standard Chinese takeout dishes, and another in Mandarin, which Ying and Courtney used to place our order of sweet and sour pork, a dish called egg and tomato, and a dish of shredded potatoes with onions. It was the first time we'd seen a plate just of pork, with a big bowl of red sauce on the side. The pork was so heavily breaded that all we tasted when we bit in was fried dough. It was dry and chewy. And the sauce seemed bottled instead of homemade and was way too sweet.
The other dishes also disappointed. The egg and tomato arrived overcooked and the potatoes in the potato dish, which was supposed to be a Chinese version of hash browns, were too thick. Even though we'd ordered off the Mandarin menu and were sitting in a hole-in-the-wall, we didn't like it. Which made us wonder: Is the most “authentic” seeming place always the best? To many, this place, and this food, would be considered the most “authentic.” But it wasn't good.
We avoid the big American chain cooking Chinese food because we think it will be inauthentic. We think a hole-in-the-wall will serve the real deal. But sometimes the kitchen in the little place is manned by a person who isn't a Chinese chef or is unfamiliar with the dishes on the menu because he is from a different region of the country.
Sometimes, the person working in the big chain might not be Chinese, and probably has never been to China, but has been well trained in Chinese cooking.
“It's all real Chinese,” Ying said. “It's just in a different context.”
Our last stop was at Canton House on north 90th Street. The sweet and sour pork here is called Peking spare ribs. It's chef Jimmy Ng's take on the classic dish.
It was the first one we met that was as good as P.F. Chang's version. The reddish sauce featured ginger, and we liked its spicy tang. We liked the thin-cut pork, which was tender with crisp edges. It also featured pineapple, onions and peppers. It had more sauce than we would have liked, but it wasn't drowning in it, either.
“The best one depends on your perspective,” Ying said. “And I think it's OK to have two winners, because they are doing different interpretations.”
It's rare, in my experience, to have a chain restaurant, P.F. Chang's, and a local restaurant, Canton House, both achieve the same goal: elevating Chinese cuisine and introducing people to something authentic.
“The real benefit in the end,” Courtney said, “is that it's training people to think about Chinese food in a new way.”