Jade Café #2

The flavor of hoisin sauce in the negative

I was six the first time I ate Chinese food. I was at Nick Chin’s seventh birthday party, which means it was about a month before I turned seven. The meal brought me an overwhelming feeling of amazement and pleasure. There was crispy seaweed that tasted like caramel corn and dissolved almost as soon as I put it in my mouth, and a noodle dish that I later described to my parents as “like a kind of Chinese spaghetti,” and this led to a brief historical lecture on Marco Polo.

For many non-Chinese people, I suspect, Chinese food marks the moment when we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our mother’s cooking. It’s a good epiphany, and an important one: it enlarges our sense of the world and its benevolence.

That shared experience may account for the special place of Chinese takeout in our cultural dreamlife: it signifies a kind of sybaritic withdrawal from the demands of the world. Just look at all the scenes in American movies and cop shows in which the hero and a beautiful actress wearing nothing but the hero’s dress shirt eat General Tso’s chicken straight from the distinctive red-and-white cartons in a stylishly furnished apartment. (Visiting from England, a friend saw those containers in my refrigerator and said, “Those are real? I’ve only ever seen them on TV.”) It could only be Chinese food in those scenes, not, say, pizza: we can imagine that the food tastes as good as the actress looks. A man eating Chinese food with an actress in a man’s dress shirt has finally managed to replace his mother.

In San Francisco, we have a lot of Chinese places that take what you might call a semi-California approach: fresh vegetables, meat that tastes like the meat itself rather than the sauce. Most of these places have non-Chinese first names—Eric’s, Alice’s, Eliza’s—but their food is generally very good. But they share a massive, dealbreaking problem: none of them are willing to drive the food to your house. Also a subtler but equally important problem: the dishes are very good, but they don’t deliver that special deliciousness we remember from our first bite of chow mein.

It may be that crunchy-fresh snowpeas aren’t really what Chinese food is about. When we watch those Chinese-takeout scenes, we’re not thinking about fresh vegetables. We’re thinking about slimy, greasy noodles and sweet gooey sauces and the way all the flavors have that same salty, meaty robustness. I suspect that this flavor satisfaction may have something to do with MSG, a kind of magic powder that has no taste of its own and apparently “brings out” or “enhances” the flavor of other foods, especially meaty foods, by acting on your neurotransmitters and rewiring your brain to make you think that the kung pao chicken you’re eating is the best thing you’ve ever tasted. (I would hate to libel a condiment, even a mysterious psychoactive condiment, and this description of its functioning is not without controversy. The furthest the FDA has been willing to go on MSG is to say that “how it adds flavor to other foods is not fully understood.”)

The litmus test, I think, is hot and sour soup. At a traditional Chinese restaurant, it’s one of those unique-to-Chinese-food tastes that rocks the tongue seven ways from Sunday and leaves it begging for more. At, say, Yum Yum House, a perfectly respectable no-MSG place on Valencia Street, it’s warm vinegar-water with chilis.

That’s why everyone needs a basic Chinese place, a place you can call when, say, Kirsten Dunst appears at your door and asks if she can borrow a shirt.

A place like this has a pretty low bar to clear: all it has to do is (i) deliver to your home; (ii) serve food that makes you feel as if the warm, greasy taste is permeating the whole of your body; and (iii) use meat products just good enough to ward off that nagging suspicion that the chicken isn’t really chicken. I’m sure there must be a hundred Chinese places in town that fit that description, but you only need one, and mine is Jade Café #2 on Bryant Street.

Jade Café has certain moves that put it ahead of the curve. One is the Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles, which you can get with just about anything: the noodles are crunchy around the edges, but in the middle the sauce softens them into a noodlier state, and this makes you appreciate the sauce more, by making it functional as well as condimentary. Another one is the wor won ton soup, which contains, alongside the dumplings, generous helpings of shrimp, scallops, chicken, barbecue pork, and those big Chinese vegetables that look like ocarinas. It’s ideal for that situation when you’re eating alone and you want some hearty, brothy soup (maybe you’ve got a cold or something) but you’re also hungry and you want a proper meal: order the wor won ton soup and you get a proper meal floating in your soup. The pork slices have that red Chinese barbecue sauce sticking to their rims as they hang out in the soup, and that might sound like it would be kind of gross but it isn’t.

The Mongolian beef is dark and chewy and smoky, suggestive somehow of a 1960s version of adult sophistication. Even the tofu dishes (heartwarmingly, Jade Café still refers to it as “bean cake”) are flavorful and galvanizing—proof, if proof were needed, that some powerful psychoactive agent is at work. The mu shu pork has the requisite cabbage-sour astringency; as is traditional, it comes with insufficient pancakes and plum sauce. (Surely paper-thin pancakes and a few tablespoons of sauce can’t be prohibitively expensive, and they’re crucial to the enjoyment of this popular dish. Yet Chinese restaurants across the country insist on issuing them in niggardly portions. Who among us has not felt the anxiety of passing a companion the hoisin sauce and watching in dismay as he or she ladles it prodigally onto a pancake, leaving only the merest scrapings for the second round of pancakes? The lasting impression of a Chinese meal is often the taste of absence, the flavor of hoisin sauce in the negative, as the tongue yearns to compensate for the depleted condiment and restore the necessary balancing sweetness to the widowed mu shu.)

There are a number of sweet-and-sour type dishes; I like the apple chicken, which replaces the traditional chunks of canned pineapple with chunks of, you know, regular apple. Nick’s father, Lincoln Chin, wouldn’t allow us to order sweet-and-sour dishes when he took us out for Chinese food; he claimed that they weren’t authentically Chinese. This led to a running debate around the lazy Susan: Which should take precedence at the dinner table—authenticity or pleasure? That argument arrives at the bottom of its slippery slope with the MSG issue: Is it better to eat something that tastes very good, or something ordinary that contains a special drug that fools your brain into thinking it’s completely delicious? According to the Buddhists, all the satisfactions of the material world are illusory. The actress wearing your shirt is made of flickering light beamed through celluloid. Why should Chinese food be any different?