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How To Eat Like An Asian

Cheap Cantonese Food

By Mark Liao

features Columnist

In the crazy world of mu goo gai pan and egg foo young, the line between authentic Chinese food and just another corn starch-infested slop from Happy Wok gets blurred.

On my most recent outing, I was accompanying a group of friends with the white / yellow ratio of a twinkie. We were looking for a cheap, relatively fast meal that wasn’t the not-so-sketchy-but-white-people-intimidating-upstairs-food-court in Chinatown. Eventually we descended into a smaller establishment off the beaten path.

Some Chinese food is as bad as girls who put pictures of themselves hugging their hot friend on www.hotornot.com and not pointing out which one she is. In order to protect yourself from bad Chinese food, here’s what you need to know.

Now, while this might come as a shock to you, not all Asians are the same. Similarly, not all Chinese people are the same. So again, I’m focusing on Cantonese food, which originates from mainland China (particularly Hong Kong). You can think of it as food they eat when they’re not eating dim sum.

First things first, hanging fowl and live seafood in tanks are really good things. Nothing says freshness like eating shrimp that was swimming around just three minutes earlier.

I know it may be intimidating seeing a duck with its head still on hanging from the restaurant window, but quite frankly, it’s something that you’re just going to have to get used to. I’m sure after the Pavlovian conditioning kicks in after your fourth visit, you’ll resist entering a restaurant without whole roasted poultry dangling in their windows. Until then, just don’t make eye contact.

For these little Cantonese eateries, I highly suggest ordering beef brisket wonton noodle soup. This brimming bowl of egg noodles and beef broth embodies two of the most fundamental items of Cantonese food: wontons and beef brisket.

A good wonton is an egg dough skin filled with pork and shrimp. What we want to avoid is the wontons that are full of indistinguishable filling or require cherry cough syrup-like sweet and sour sauce. Any restaurant that will take the time to put two or three shrimp inside each of the hundreds of wontons they serve daily actually pays attention to detail.

The second part is the brisket. A good brisket requires hours and hours of cooking thus tenderizing the meat. Generally speaking, this equates to meat that breaks apart in your mouth virtually upon impact. Our server tonight also wanted to emphasize this point -- those larger chunks of somewhat transparent meat are not pieces of fat, they’re actually pieces of beef tendon that have been cooked until soft. While the consistency takes a bit of getting used to, rest assured that you eventually will.

These parlors should also specialize in barbeque. Roast pork, roast duck, soy sauce chicken -- all of these items are standard fare and are reasonably priced when served on a bed of rice. Of course, you want to make sure that the meat-to-rice ratio is appropriate and hope that they let some sauce drip onto your rice.

If you’ve never tried duck, it’s like an entire chicken with firm dark meat. The skin is crispy and a little fatty, but it’s worth using the stairs instead of the elevator once in a while. Also, when you think you’re ready to be a bit more adventurous, go for the duck gizzard or the fried chitterlings (yes, pig intestine... hey, they do it in Kentucky, too!)

Another typical type of Cantonese dish is the salt-and-pepper-type deal. We’re talking about fried meat covered with salt, green onions, and mildly spicy peppers. If you can handle medium spicy Doritos salsa, you’ll be fine as long as you pick out the big chunks of green peppers. They’ll do this to squid, shrimp, pork chops -- virtually anything that’s tasty as is but made even better by the simple fact that it’s fried. Honestly, can you think of a type of salty food that isn’t made better by frying?

Lastly, if you’re still at a loss for what to order, go for a Hong Kong-style fried noodle. They take the thin, yellow egg noodles, fry them to a crisp, and cover them with some meat, vegetables and a thick sauce. This sauce softens up the noodles in the middle while leaving a nice crunchy region around the outer rim. It’s amazing. “Eight delight” is usually more expensive than just ordering one type of meat, but you’ll get a whole slew of pork, beef, chicken along with some squid, shrimp, and at nicer places, scallops. Otherwise, just opt for beef and vegetables or seafood and vegetables.

This last meal came out to $42.50 for eight people. It would have been $5.00 a pop but somebody had to order overpriced spring rolls. Oh yeah, and tip -- let’s just say we’re not known for being great tippers. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.