According to the Chinese calendar, 2007 was the Year of the Pig, and so I resolved to eat as much pork as possible.
By all counts, I completed my objective with resounding success and probably ate more pork than should be eaten in a 12-month period. This year, early February ushered in the Year of the Rat, and though I don't anticipate upping my rat-intake, I did commemorate the holiday with another screening of Ratatouille, my favorite rat-centric food movie, and a multi-meal celebration that I expect might still be going on as you read this, since the New Year festival lasts for two weeks. We Chinese know how to get down, so long as food is involved.
The festivities began with a friend's Chinese New Year's Day dinner, a potluck of assorted Chinese takeaway that included lots of sparkling wine, which actually goes really well with Chinese food. My contribution was a couple dozen crescent-shaped barbecue pork buns that I picked up from Jasmine Restaurant's takeout shop (4609 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa). They're made with a sesame-seed-flecked flaky pastry, a better wrap for the soft, sweet meat than the doughy variety you usually find in dim sum carts.
Instead of the familiar Tsingtao beer, I found a six-pack of Harbin beer—from my mom's hometown in China's northern Heilongjiang province—in an adjacent Asian market. For that reason alone, I wanted to like it, but it was a watery, tasteless Asian equivalent of Budweiser and not much worth drinking.
One friend came bearing paper cartons from his favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant, Mandarin House. He rolls with his own pu-pu platter, so he bought the edibles to fill each compartment of the wooden tray. Since I was raised on bean curd, fish bellies and chicken feet, pu-pu platters—with their built-in hibachi grill—have always seemed exotic to me. I can't say I'll be ordering it regularly, though the shrimp toast was tasty and holding any food over a fire is pretty fun.
I hadn't yet been to Mandarin House's Bankers Hill location (2604 Fifth Ave.), though I grew up going to Mandarin Garden in Mira Mesa, a similar early-'80s Chinese restaurant. My family always insisted on ordering authentic dishes that weren't on the menu, but I was occasionally allowed the nontraditional Shirley Temple, its garish red color so alluringly adult. Hearing my friend talk about Mandarin House made me feel a little nostalgic, so the next night we stopped in for a drink. Martin, the manager, greeted us warmly and slid behind the bar to mix us a Volcano, just one of the retro tiki drinks still on the menu. It's served aflame, in a hula-girl-adorned vessel from which we sipped with 2-foot-long straws.
As fun as that was, I was still craving the Chinese food I grew up with, the kind that engages my taste buds like no other, so the next night, the family and I went to Dede's (4647 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa), whose style of spicy Sichuan food features chilies galore in their fresh, dried, fried and pickled forms. Dede's is probably best known for its hotpot, an all-you-can-eat deal for $20 to $25 per person, but I prefer ordering off the menu for more variety. I love the cold appetizer cart, from which you can choose three items for $5.99. I usually go for tender stalks of marinated bamboo shoots, savory mustard greens and then something a little more challenging like chicken gizzards, pig ears or beef tendon. Fried frog legs arrive covered in blanket of dried chilies that must be excavated to get to the spicy, crispy nuggets below. I like the special pork chops, too, stir fried with heaps of cilantro stems and squash, sautéed until tender, in a salty egg sauce.
Days later, Chinese food was still on the brain, so I took a couple co-workers to Golden City (5375 Kearny Villa Road, Kearny Mesa), whose home-style cooking is a pretty regular fix for me. None of its lunch specials exceed $6 or $7, and most of it is much more interesting than the usual lunch-combo meals. The Kwai Fei chicken is deceptively tasty—the bland color of the chicken pieces conceals a depth of flavor that comes from a long steaming that allows salt and herbs to fully penetrate into the meat. It's served with a ginger and scallion sauce that's been drizzled with hot oil to make a fragrant condiment. Though it could probably make anything taste good, I like it best on white rice.
The similarly simple braised Yee Mein, with Chinese mushrooms in an oyster sauce, were also a must-eat, mainly for their deliciousness but also for their auspicious nature, as noodles are a New Year food that symbolizes a long life. And man, do I hope that's the case, because I've got a lot of eating to do.