I write a lot about my college days at Berkeley, all the great food I ate, and the 15 pounds I gained as a result. Oh, alright, it was closer to twenty, but I lost all of it and then some shortly thereafter, working very very hard.
One of the reasons that I gained so much weight wasn’t necessarily the volume or quantity of food I ate, rather the quality of food, and more importantly, when I ate said food of suspicious quality. Many a night, I would jay-run-not-walk across Durant, blast through the open door of Steve’s Barbecue just before 1:30 am, hoping to God that they hadn’t yet powered down their indoor grills. If I was so lucky, I’d first nod-bow Korean-style, then order #2 to-go. Numbatwodaaejeebulgogi! she would scream over her shoulder to the Mexican cook who was only two feet behind her. I happily bounced back to my dorm room, careful to keep the styrofoam box upright so that deliciously spicy red pork bulgogee grease mixed with kimchee juice wouldn’t seep into the creases of the white plastic grocery bag that said “Thank You” in red letters. Back to the same spot in the 3rd floor lounge where I had been huddled over my Econ textbook for the previous four hours, I proceeded to consume the entire #2. The whole glorious meal enough for three people, four if they’re small people.
But that’s not all. Sometimes it was Fat Slice (the biggest, thickest slices of non-Chicago-style pizza you will ever encounter), but they close at midnight. Sometimes it was Yokohama Station’s Tokyo Chicken, which was mostly cabbage and carrots that smelled like wood, but generously doused with sriracha, you’d never know. And sometimes, and this was when I met him, who had a car, it was Sun Hong Kong all the way over on Shattuck Avenue, for crispy noodles and shrimp. What a treat, they were open until 4 am. What a treat, he had a car *eyebrows up and down*
I think after losing the 20+ pounds that I had gained in college, I subconsciously swore off everything I ever ate in college, somehow psychologically linking college semi-obesity with oily cheesy pizza, greasy grilled sausages, Manuel’s burritos that required dos manos, fatty meat and fried rice. Gee, that’s a weird connection – fat made me...fat! ;) Sure, now I eat those things, in slightly more updated, refined versions, and certainly not at 3 am. Except burritos, and if we’re really keeping track here, then it’s the nachos at Benito’s at 3 am anyway, not the burritos.
Actually, if we are truly being accurate, then I can’t include the noodles I ate at Sun Hong Kong, which to be quite honest, I don’t even remember the name, because he always ordered them in Chinese. They were thin, like spaghetti noodles, but were crispy, like they had been deep-fried, or even pan-fried in a lot of oil. The noodles were a tangled nest for big fat, curled shrimp drenched in a thick, clear yet cloudy cornstarch sauce. It wasn’t spicy in the least, but I always spooned fatal amounts of hot chili sauce on top. For some reason, I want to remember the dish as His Hong Kong Fried Noodles.
I just became reacquainted with the same noodles at Royal Star Seafood in Santa Monica. It was the battle-back of a Chinese challenge that had started at J.R. Seafood. The Intern had alleged that Royal Star Seafood was good, and that his posse would back him up. I claimed that J.R. Seafood was fairly decent for the Westside, and could give Royal Star a run for it moo shoo. I’ve been to both, they had not, so we went through a bit of a Hunan hazing at J.R. That was quite an experience.
Was it for shame that the posse didn’t make it out to Royal Star with the Intern? Did they know they had already lost the war at the Battle of J.R.? No, not really, since the meal wasn’t that great there, especially, with that green B hanging in the window. But the Intern wanted me to try something that wasn’t offered at J.R. Seafood. When the dish came to the table, I was taken back *cough ten cough* years to Berkeley, college, Sun Hong Kong at 3 am – pan fried noodles with shrimp.
It looked exactly like I remembered it, if not better. A twisted, tangled mess of noodles that were thin, tanned and crisped to a deep golden yellow in an episode with the frying pan, some of the noodles on the outer edge even as dark as Bain du Soleil. Lounging on top, it wasn’t just shrimp, but thick slices of meaty, fatty-tender beef, pristine white chicken breast, and vegetables. It wasn’t just cross-cut pieces of cabbage, but entire quarters of sweet baby bok choy, almost whorled into perfect yin and yang. The thick, shiny gloss of a sauce was clear, which might indicate bland, but it was seasoned and flavorful – my naive tongue might just be impressed with salt. It certainly wasn’t spicy, but like I did so many years ago, all I had to do was ask for some hot sauce. The shrimp were just a touch rubbery, but I didn’t mind. This is Chinese food, not sushi. I didn’t intend to eat beyond a taste, but I’m quite certain that I polished off more than my fair share.
The noodles had been the star of the table, the reason we came to Royal Star, the motivation behind the Ch
inese Challenge in the first place, but we did order a few other items from the menu. I mean, it was dinner, not a midnight study break snack ;) The spring rolls to start came out pretty soon after we ordered them, which was almost alarming, but then I realized that at the correct high heat, a deep fryer can cook fairly fast, and it’s not like I expected Royal Star to actually hand roll those things only after we ordered them. The skins were thin and crisp, the way spring rolls should be, not thick and bubbly like eggrolls. The filling was fine, and I certainly didn’t expect to gush on and on about spring roll filling. I never like sweet and sour sauce that comes with the fried stuff, so I stuck to pure chili sauce, deftly spooned onto the end of the spring roll before each bite. In case you haven’t noticed, I am condiment professional.
The other dish is one that has become a favorite only in recent years. Before snow pea shoots (I shall not type out the Romanized Chinese name lest I brutally butcher it), the greens of choice for me was always spinach, either creamed or sautéed in garlic. Sure, that’s not a Chinese thing, but I am talking about green in general here! But now it’s snow pea shoots. I almost have cravings for it, with their little curlicue tendrils that stick out pertly from the mass on the plate, the entire bunch completely drenched in wok frying oil, and everything salted, garlicky, and still tender crisp. Sometimes it’s not done well, and the overcooked greens become bitter and mushy, or it’s a little too oily if that’s possible. But for parte dos of this Challenge at Royal Star, these were good enough to make me think of replacing creamed spinach with the stuff on my Thanksgiving table.
Overall, the meal at Royal Star was good. I got to take a short trip down memory lane with the pan-fried noodles that tasted even better than Sun Hong Kong, and *mmm* over snow pea shoots. As far as the Challenge goes, though, Royal Star was good food, but it was weird to see no other Asian people in the restaurant except the staff. That felt sort of PF Chang's. J.R. Seafood was an odd experience because of what we ordered. Again, sort of PF Chang's. It’s a pretty close call, so we just may have to go into overtime. But thank god neither place is open at 3 am, otherwise we might be facing the post-college fifteen. ;)
Royal Star Seafood Restaurant
3001 Wilshire Boulevard (@ Stanford)
Santa Monica, CA 90403