Going out for Chinese food with my Korean family always follows the same loud, but unspoken routine. It’s a ball game. Whoever is feeling a bit bossy at the time takes on the role of, let me just call it “Captain,” and despite what you may think, I am very rarely, if ever, the Captain. LOL! We all flip through the menu, though I have wonder why we even go through this ceremony at all since we basically order the exact same five to seven things no matter in what restaurant we are. We pick and choose, make suggestions, discuss options across the table and even have side bar conversations about trying to steer Dad away from deep-fried. It’s loud, fast-talking, negotiating, back and forth team sport. The Captain is keeping score, keeping us on track so Dad doesn’t go off on a tangent about how everything comes from China, and in the end, we have culled together a list of dishes for the table to eat as team. The Captain makes sure that there’s something for everyone including beef and chicken for the carnivores, seafood for Mom, tons of tofu and spice for Sarah. No one ever orders a small soup for themselves. If it’s a special occasion, we get “large” for the table. The captain gives the game plan to the server, and when the dishes start to arrive, lazy Susan doesn’t stop spinning.
But going out for Chinese food with non-Asians is a whole different golf game that, quite honestly, gives me pre-game jitters. Plastic laminated menus get passed around the table and while everyone else leisurely flips through the pages of entrees categorized by meat-type, a teensy twinge of discomfort comes over me. I have a slightly sweaty death grip on the menu. My eyes are only reading but not registering the Happy Family and Three Ingredients Delight. I look around at all the tops of heads that are visible from behind the poster sized menus with peeling corners, and hear the occasional breathy *hm*s and subtle *oh-this-looks-good*s. It is this menu-centered quietude to which I am not accustomed. I can’t take it, so I spin the lopsided lazy Susan, reach for the tea pot, and start nervously pouring tea before I have to ask the question.
“So, uh,” gulping tea then clearing throat, “so, uh, what are we getting?”
Quizzical looks around the table. I said we.
And then it gets really sticky for me because this is where I have to ask the second question, which makes me feel incredibly stupid, because no matter how I choose my tone or how delicately I try to word it, inevitably it sounds like this, “Are we going to order like team players and generously share family-style so we can always try a little of this and a little of that and have a fun balanced dinner, or are you going to be a selfish loner and eat that entire plate of Moo Goo Gai Pan that could feed a small country all on your own?” That’s not what I mean, but that’s how it sounds. Game over. Go home.
So, I hemmed and hawed (internally, of course, I’m not rude) when invited to dinner at J.R. Seafood, a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant on the ground floor of a Westside mini-mall that doesn’t get much hype from the masses, but has been a familiar haunt for me. First, hemming for all the aforementioned reason, but second, hawing because recently, I have seen some very cheesy home video-ized commercials for J.R. Seafood on cable. Wow. Ads on tv. Like Red Lobster. Shame shame on the Jade River, but I forgive them this time.
Yes! A lazy Susan at J.R. Seafood, and I started to sweat as I sat down at a large round table with a group of seven strangers except the one who invited me. A mixed bag of non-Asians, not even really exposed all that much to Asian cuisines because they were from...Florida. The Midwest. Pittsburgh. Everywhere else except LA-sian. This was going to be interesting. And I certainly had no idea how to explain the big green B in the window.
My worry was for something, but not everything. Pittsburgh promptly announced, upon taking his seat, that he will be getting his own dish and paying for his own because he is on a budget due to roommate circumstances. Okay, well, that was just as promptly squashed by everyone else, including Seattle who said he’d just cover it. *phew* That would have been a bill calculating nightmare. In the end though, we basically ended up family style, though not without some coaching and training. I mean, the instigator of moo shoo pork kept asking around about who wanted to share? *sigh* Everyone, silly.
Our spiky haired server spoke just a little too fast and was a little too aggressive when we ordered appetizers, so we ended up with two orders each of pan-fried dumplings, eggrolls, and chicken skewers. The dumplings and eggrolls were a bit greasy and cold when they made it to the table. Chicken skewers, which must be a recent addition to the Hong Kong kitchen, were better, but not so much that I felt better about being coerced into ordering two.
For a group of eight, six dishes with steamed rice, even five, is plenty, especially since we had ordered the appetizers. Perhaps the family-style concept is still new to some or perhaps our server’s day job was at the used Yugo dealership, but we ended up with eight main entrees. Whatever it was, eight was way too much food, and sadly, way too much *eh* food. Alright, seven if you don’t count the fried rice. But it was chicken fried rice, so that makes it eight, yes eight! main dishes in my enormous world of hyperbolic point-making.
I can’t go into pain-staking detail about each dish, only cursory general descriptions, because really, for how *eh* they were, it would be painful. The suspiciously bright orange, can I say Tang (TM)?, color of Tangerine Chicken made me recoil at first, which may have something to do with my impending tangerine dream date. I recoiled even more when I tasted its way too sticky sweet sauce that would have given Panda a cavity. Don’t worry, it was an internal recoil; I’m not that crude in front of strangers! The meat was also somewhat stringy and tough, but at least it was comforting to know it was cooked all the way through. One taste was enough, now spin that lazy Susan!
Moo Shoo is not something I usual
ly order on my own, only because I find the pancakes to be somewhat like lightly floured gum that’s been left out in the desert for a few days. There weren’t enough pancakes for everyone anyway (wait, isn’t this family-style?!), so I just chomped on a chopstick-full of the moo shoo pork filling, which was okay. Lots of vegetables. That was a plus.
Shrimp and Broccoli and Beef and Snowpeas were such uninspired choices that all I will do is mention them. They were on the table, they were covered in mild cornstarch-thickened gloop, and that’s all. Given those dishes, I was actually surprised by an order of Crispy Duck; not by the duck itself, but that someone at the table requested it. I don’t love duck, but I tried it anyway because it certainly was going to be more exciting than the shrimp or the beef. I didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t very crispy, and like most of the other dishes, was almost cold. Strangely enough, the only other non-Asian who I’ve ever heard of ordering crispy duck in a Chinese restaurant was English, too. LOL!
I have my thoughts on fried rice. Let’s just say that in my house, fried rice is made from leftovers. That makes me wary of fried rice in restaurants, especially restaurants that have green Bs in the window. I didn’t taste the chicken fried rice, but it was gone by leaps and mounds on everyone else’s plates. And drizzled with soy sauce. Hey, not trying to hate on condiments; if I actually ate the rice, I would have given more than a generous squeeze of sriracha. LOL!
The Hunan Tofu was not as popular, but that certainly didn’t bother me, since that was my suggestion. I suspect “tofu” had something to do with it, as well as the dried red chiles in the sauce. I can never get enough fire, but for tongues that are new to heat, it might have been a little too much spice. Not because I ordered it, but really, this was probably the best tasting dish of the evening.
The real reason for the dinner at Jade River was to begin a challenge. The people at the table had heard through someone else that I had said that J.R. Seafood is pretty good for Chinese food on the Westside, especially since you can get live crab and lobster (which I actually don’t eat anyway, so who the hell do I think I am?!?). They had been frequenting Royal Star Seafood on Wilshire, so they invited me to their taste test, particularly for a specific Hong Kong-style noodle dish. So not only was I nervous about dining with non-Asians in a Chinese restaurant, but my own tastes were under the ‘scope. Well, J.R. didn’t even have the particular noodle dish, so we settled for Chicken Lo Mein, the eighth dish on the bill. Judging panel's score on the noodles – all around average 4.55, though I thought it was quite greasy. My individual score on J.R. Seafood – overall food not good enough to ignore the green B, this time (because I am quite sure I will be back and I will rave). I think everyone else is going to stick to Royal Star.