Thursday, April 30, 2009

Chinese Brown Sauce: New York vs. New Orleans

There's a reason Chinese food is considered exceptionally good in downstate New York compared to in other parts of the country. It's because it just is that much more superior. Maybe not to Californian Chinese food, but I've never been that far west (ironic, isn't it? I've been to 26 out of our 50 states, and yet the only western city I've visited was Las Vegas), so I can't judge. But what I can say for a solid fact is that in Long Island and New York City, Chinese food is pretty much guaranteed to be delicious no matter where you go, just in different ways.

My favorite dish growing up was a simple one. My dad could cook it in two shakes and it was half nutritious vegetables, so my mother had no complaints. Well, scratch that; once I developed a taste for how good pork fried rice could be with brown sauce drizzled on top, my mother bemoaned the additional calories and my father taught me to make my own fried rice to save him the trouble.

Anyway, this standby was just the basic, classic Chicken with Broccoli. None of that nonsense with thinly sliced carrots or anything -- just straight up white-meat chicken breast, sliced thin and against the grain for optimal tenderness stir-fried with larger scaled bite-sized florets of lush, woody green broccoli in a rich and unplaceable, uninterestingly named "brown sauce" or "brown gravy."

Now there are many ways, though, that you can totally screw up this two-ingredient dish. You can have rubbery, low-quality chicken, fattened up with starchy filler spread as a coating over the meat. You can have old broccoli, limp and low in nutritional value; or you can have bitter, thick chunks of broccoli that have an unpalatable aftertaste. But most importantly, you could have really crappy sauce.

I've found in my five years of living in New Orleans that the sauces here tend to be somewhat watered down, the concentrate of the sauce being filtered out and losing a lot of their deep brown richness. I always thought itt was traditional to use a daily, fresh-made pork shoulder and chicken broth to dilute the deeply concentrated soy-based from-scratch sauce, which I'd observed in my years growing up at my father's Chinese restaurant in Long Island. But it seems that corners are cut when the competition fails to force vendors to step up their game. After all, the fact that mediocre 5 Happiness is continuously voted the best Chinese restaurant in New Orleans speaks volumes about our lowered expectations here for that type of cuisine -- bastardized Chinese.

It's touches like that homemade broth, fresh crushed garlic and soy beans, and hours and hours of simmering that I came here accustomed to and that I miss. The recipes at China East in Selden, formerly Yangtze Kitchen, were created with love and passion, passed down from my grandpa to my dad with the Yangtze Kitchen name. And it's because of the addition of that vital ingredient, soul, that makes all the difference. And trust me, my dad You Feng Lin and grandpa Tik Shun Cheng both cooked with a whole lotta soul. It's reflected in the deep brown, rich, and decadent thick sauce that coats the chicken and broccoli, at China East in suburban Long Island, showing a depth and complexity that spoiled New Yorkers have come to expect for under $5 a pint.

China East
1070 Middle Country Road
Selden, New York 11784

Suitable Substitutes:

Green Tea
1116 Louisiana Avenue
Uptown New Orleans
.. down to the black and red printed menus and the use of the word "pint," this place is a ringer, and where I got the lovely yellow fried rice shown in the pictures

Mandarin House Buffet
3501 Severn Ave
Metairie, LA 70002
... not spectacularly awesome, but one of the best New York-style Chinese buffets you'll find around here. The selection is massive and changed out frequently, but their downfall, to me, is a total lack of anything in the dumpling department.


  1. I hear ya on Five Happiness. Everyone needs to get over that's not good. However, I did hear this place is recommendable:

    Imperial Garden Chinese Restaurant
    3331 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 443-5691

    Have you tried it?

  2. Nope, not yet, but I sure will take you up on that recommendation!

    Cafe East in Metairie is also pretty good, and Hoshun in the Garden District is tasty and cheap, but they're not the "bastardized" Chinese I'm looking for ... although, they're not exactly authentic, either lol.

  3. I work very close to Cafe East so I'll check it out. Thanks!

  4. DEFINITELY have the hot and sour soup -- it's fabulous. The moo shu is very good and the portions are all massive. Things in brown sauce @ East Cafe are passable, but not incredible. A winner, though, is the Honey Walnut Shrimp -- sweet, sticky, thick sauce with a tropical feel, courtesy of the chunks of pineapple, and slightly crispy shrimp with plenty of walnuts. Do it up with brown rice and that soup and you won't regret it!

  5. I liked this entry. And I miss Dad.

  6. Thanks, S'mai. Me, too. I also miss lo mein.