It’s fortunate for me, as someone who lives in a bad neighborhood, that I like Chinese food. It doesn’t matter where you live in America. It can be Houston’s Fifth Ward, East St. Louis, West Oakland, or anywhere in Camden. No matter the spot, there will be a Chinese take-out joint. The names change, but not much. Somewhere within one mile of anyone who reads this, there will be a place called Happy Wok or New Taste Kitchen. It will have black signs with yellow letters announcing the menu items; above these are decades-old stock images of roast pork and chow mein, yellowed by sunlight and patinaed by grease fumes. Is it too much to say I love these places? No.
But to truly get maximum enjoyment for your money, you need to know a few things.
First of all, ignore the “chef’s specialties” box entirely. Every Chinese takeout menu is organized in exactly the same way, on the same paper, and using the same type. In fact, I used to suspect that it was actually the same menu, until I noticed that not all of them included fried pork chops. The best stuff, such as the appetizers and the lunch specials, are on the left, and the various rice and noodle dishes are in the middle. Floating on the right side will usually be a box filled with slightly more expensive meat dishes, including General Tso’s Chicken, Triple Delight, Moo Shoo Pancakes, Kung Pao Beef, and so on. These are all uniformly terrible, thawed globs of meat that have been coated with corn starch, fried in dirty oil, and covered with a deep layer of revoltingly sweet and sticky sauce. This isn’t to say that I haven’t eaten them many times, especially when high, but they are the very worst things on the menu and among the most expensive.
On the other hand, the “American menu” is awesome. Over the years, this section has given me more pleasure, more calories, and fewer leftovers than any other part of the menu. It is so cheap that I can still hardly believe it. Right now I am looking at a menu I got two days ago, but the prices seem to be from the 1940s. Half of a fried chicken costs $3.50. Add in a heaping portion of pale white crinkle-cut french fries, and you have spent $5. For another fifty cents you get a half a fried chicken resting on a broad, deep bed of pork fried rice. What is going on here? How can this be happening? Two sparrow-sized Original Recipe thighs at KFC, with no sides, costs twice that; a gourmet candy bar, the bad, bitter kind, costs three times as much. And it’s really good! The chicken, though old and hours—or possibly days—past its first cooking, is big and crunchy and has the kind of long-frozen wings whose end joints can be chewed up like pretzels. Of course, this menu isn’t limited to fried chicken. You can also get pork chops ($2.75), four big chicken wings with or without hot sauce ($3), shrimp ($4.25), or spare rib tips ($4.50). Prices are approximate.
At this point, you might be wondering, “What the hell are rib tips?” To my mind, there is no more neglected dish on shitty Chinese menus than these boney little pork pieces, which sell at a fraction of the cost of spare ribs. Their origin isn’t at all mysterious: When you square off food service spare ribs (the ones you get in the appetizer column) what remains are meaty but uneven and unsightly parts of the rib. These get cut up and thrown, like everything else, into the omnipresent dirty oil. There is a lot of meat on these little babies, and all of it is belly—the same wonderful cut we enjoy when eating bacon! If you can somehow get these before they are drenched with radioactive-looking red honey, they are a fabulous bargain. Spare rib tips and pork fried rice have adorned many a TV tray, and often you will quit before it does.
I tend to think in terms of fried meats and fried rice, but no discussion of Chinese food would be complete without noodles. There are several kinds on the menu, all of which look and pretty much taste the same. Lo mein is a thin wheat-flour noodle; chow fun is thin, broad rice-flour noodles. Chow mein, everybody’s favorite, is an egg noodle. This last can be had two ways, both of which are wonderful. Soft chow mein, the kind that comes in a white box with a little metal handle and pagodas on the outside, is a hot noodle with meat that has been cooked in dirty oil in a wok. Hard chow mein noodles are the gratifyingly greasy little crunchy things that come in an opaque paper bag somewhere at bottom of the take out order. Since these are, as noted above, pretty much all just vehicles for dirty oil, get whichever kind you want. I personally usually go for lo mein, which often has wilted greens that have been absorbed by, wait for it, dirty oil.
Speaking of dirty oil, who doesn’t love egg foo yung? Egg foo yung sounds mysterious, and looks it too—typically these fried omelettes come buried under a sea of thick brown sauce, which gives them the appearance of a shallow grave. But they’re light and puffy, and their lacy edges crisp and delicate. You just have to get the sauce on the side. That’s the key. My move has always been to eat the fried chicken off the top of the fried rice, and then nestle an egg foo yung patty, dressed with a small amount of sauce, atop the rice. One bite gets you egg, meat, rice, sauce—every part of the food pyramid. Food deserts indeed!
There’s always the temptation, once you have finished your dinner, blotted your hands and feet with towels, and looked with sweaty anticipation toward your Little Debbie dessert, to throw away the remains. Don’t! There is white rice there, to be mixed tomorrow with the egg foo yung sauce, there to make an economy risotto; the chow mein noodles mentioned above, which only get better with a few weeks refrigeration; and a generous mix of various condiment packets, any one of which can enliven something less dreary.
It doesn’t matter how much you have to spend, who you are, or what happens to be the closest Chinese takeout joint. As long as you have an appetite, some knowledge, and access to an ATM that dispenses ten-dollar bills, there is a great meal waiting out there for bad gourmet.