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Peking Saikan Chinese Restaurant (Kobe, Japan)
||Chuo-Ku, Gen Machi, Area/Block 2-2-1,|
Reviewed by: Michael Newman
Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page: 37 and 38
While in Kobe, Japan with my family, with long-distance urging from Mom, sought out and went to visit a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant we selected was about a three minute walk south from JR Genmachi Station and one stop from the JR Kobe station.
Having no Chinese afficionados to consult, nor a book touting Chinese restaurants, my family selected this Chinese eatery after we walked up and down the streets of Kobeís Chinatown. We looked at menus and assessed how busy each place was. This was a trick I learned from Dad; it is certainly one Mom does not really deem critical. Another, and at the moment more important consideration was which places were still open. The streets here seem to close up around eight in the evening, and already it was just past that hour.
Growing up the son of a Chinese food expert, even I cooked lots of foods of this cuisine, so I felt confident and up to the task. After all, had I not watched both parents doing this on ever so many occasions in many, many cities and towns on many continents? My attempt was to mimic what I had seen and heard so often. Here I was in a country where I knew but three or four Japanese words, but with a son who had completed two years learning the language in High School. As a grown man taking his family to a Chinese restaurant to please my Mom, I wanted to please her. Not that I do not like Chinese food, actually we all love it, but with only two weeks in Japan, we were ready to eat only Japanese food; so this is a switch from our plans.
But back to the task. The place selected was plain with pleasant dťcor, and it was small as most Japanese restaurants seemed to us. It had but six or eight small tables and it looked like many local Japanese eateries. However, there were some differences. A carved wooden phoenix adorned the largest wall and dragons decorated the ceiling. Not plain were the chairs, their silk brocaded dragon decorations were gorgeous. And they had plastic protection covers.
Ordering was somewhat fragile but it did not break down because their menu, with only Kanji descriptions, did have pictures of the food. Then there was my sonís competent Japanese but limited Japanese food vocabulary. Here and most of the Japanese places we ate in were staffed by waiters who spoke very little English. In Boston where I live, our waiters speak almost no Japanese, so that was to be expected. Even so, they could help translate the names of some food items in several of the dishes. Less possible was how they were cooked.
This place was more high-tech than we anticipated and we did enjoy watching the waiter use a touch pad system to transmit orders directly to the kitchen. High tech and low food language skills did little to help our the decision-making process of what to order. Finally, when some casserole soup-like dishes were served to another table, we started to feel better knowing we could manage with or without language. They looked good but were not in our picture menu. Guess they were specials that day. We pictured ourselves eating them. So we used my Dadís technique of checking out what else others are eating. We then ordered these and other foods pointing to them and to the menu.
As a first course we ordered dumplings. We thought they came with soup inside. So much for my sonís Japanese and what we understood from the waiter. They arrived four in their bamboo steamer, each a nice conical shape topped with a red dot, and each an exact duplicate of the others. There was just a drop of stock in each dumpling, but it surely was good. As sometimes occurs in Japan, and did with this dish, each dumpling was very delicate. Without being exceptionally careful, it was easy to lose some of that wonderful liquid on its way to our mouths. Although they would be better with even more stock inside, these dumplings were fantastic. Some on our family deemed them the best dish of the meal. The stock and pork mixture within each small delightful dumpling was extremely tasty, and had we known that when ordering and acted before the kitchen was deemed shut for the night, we would have decided on many more orders, probably one for each.
Next came what our waiter described as a 'free soup' that turned out to look and taste akin to egg drop soup. My son had an excellent description of this freebie. "Dad," he said, "it would be better if there was enough to enjoy." Feeling more positive than my hungry teen, I deemed it the start of something promising. Maybe the waiter was trying to cater to us Westerners who had simply not known how or what to order; after all, he did bring it early in the meal.
Spring rolls came next. Their skins were not crispy at all even though they were very hot. Was that intended or were they precooked? Little language did not solve that question. For our main dishes our ordering brought us three fascinating dishes. They were ground pork with fried rice noodles, hot and sour spicy shrimp, and chicken with cashews. Like many dishes in Japan, every one of these dishes came as a mighty small portion by American standards. It was early in our trip, so we had not ordered enough, but could not rectify that due to the late hour.
The ground pork dish came with lettuce as a wrap. Unfortunately it had minimal flavor and little sauce. We were surprised that the rice noodles lacked the usual crunch. The pork was cooked exceptionally well. The lettuce and pork were a good combination; and upon our return to the States, did learn that this dish is classic when made with quail or chicken.
The hot and sour shrimp were made mild as requested. While the dish did have good flavor, it would have been better if we had held our collective tongues and had it normally spiced. We were timid when ordering, clearly a mistake in Japan. The chicken with cashews was the best of the main course items; it was well prepared and underdone to our and Chinese tastes. That meant it was juicy, flavorful, and with proper texture. Overall, it was succulent and a bit salty, as the Chinese like.
The moral, or morals to this adventure we share: Japan is a country where the written language can use characters some can read, but even if able to do so, food words can be out of oneís reach. Waiters and picture menus help, but are no substitute for understanding language. We recommend before you go and we return (and we will), that we and you should locate a bi-lingual friend or use the services of the hotel concierge if you are timid about ordering food.
Thankfully, we are not, but it can help when someone calls ahead. Had we known where we were going, we could have called them and learned when the kitchen closes, what their specials are, etc. The very timid can even have the caller order for them. Though my Dad likes to look at what is on other tables and then order his Chinese food, and we have watched that protocol often, with one family member with special eating concerns, we would have benefitted with additional help. What I learned was, that though an adult with a grown son who speaks considerable Japanese, even we could not do justice to this restaurant's Chinese food. On a future trip, I plan to take my own advise; feel free to make it yours!