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Food Biz of Two Chan Generations

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in the USA

Spring Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(1) page(s): 17, 22, and 36

In the summer of 1981 I was first introduced to the glories of dim sum, the informal brunch-time Chinese meal consisting of dumplings and snacks selected from strolling carts. Twenty-five years later I am still in love with the relaxed stylings of Chinese tea lunch. From those early days until the mid-1990s, friends and I ate dim sum brunch on the Bowery seemingly every weekend. We were in our twenties, so staying out all night and sleeping in as long as possible was our wont. It was thus with a mixture of dread and delight that each of us anticipated those early morning telephone 'dim summons.'

Five to ten guys would gather on Saturday or Sunday at 11:45 am. We chose the off-hour to get in line ahead of slightly-less gung-ho diners who rendezvoused at noon, at Hee Seung Fung restaurant, better known as HSF (46 Bowery at the corner of the Canal Arcade). We would slurp seltzer while we waited, trying to clear room for the brunch feast to come. If the line took 'forever,' as it often did, one of us (OK, I admit it was usually me) would run off to a nearby street cart for shrimp rice noodle with six different sauces for a buck, or perhaps some siu mai (pork dumplings) from Mei Lai Wah Coffeehouse, an elderly gent's hangout still there around the corner at 64 Bayard Street. Nothing, except getting older, stopped our joy as we stood around eating dim sum while waiting to be seated for more dim sum.

It was at HSF that I tried many foods for the first time--squid, chicken feet, duck blood, whole crabs and a whole lot more. It took a while to learn how to reject the flowery Jasmine tea, the default beverage brought to non-Chinese. Instead, we learned to order full-flavored, dark-brown bo lei tea as we were seated. We would sit for hours and drink pots and pots of the slightly bitter decoction, but it was not until later that our instincts were confirmed. Chinese medical knowledge hails bo lei as an excellent hangover remedy.

Chinese people like things rei nao or hot and noisy, and HSF's weekend dim sum was always packed and raucous. Whether you sat alone, or jammed in with other parties, there was no escaping the din, heat, and clamor for snacks that fairly defines dim sum. We would try other parlors, such as the calm-and-carpeted Golden Unicorn, but were never satisfied. HSF always drew us back.

If ever we had a choice of tables, we opted for the one closest to the kitchen. It was there where the clatter was loudest, where the carts piled up like a traffic jam on the BQE, where the dumplings would arrive at their most scalding, just seconds after leaving the kitchen’s gigantic steamers. HSF was also the only place to top their siu mai with a whole steamed quail’s egg--a perfect mouthful if ever there was one.

Dim sum is always best when there is a crowd of hungry eaters jostling for their favorite snacks. That way the food sells quickly, sparking a flow of fresh hot dumplings from the hands of untold numbers of unseen chefs.

Chinese dim sum aficionados always seemed to get seated the moment they arrived, but we lo fan or white ghosts never broke the ice with the maitre d'. Nonetheless, our burden as cultural outsiders eased with many visits over the years. We were known to several of the cart ladies, one of whom, after learning we really did have Chinese taste buds, would offer to grab dumplings from other carts and heat them up expertly on her griddle. No one else ever gave us turnip cake with such pretty, crispy, lacy edges.

We also befriended a couple of HSF waiters, Jimmy Wong and shock-headed King Chan, known to Chinatown denizens as Chan. They helped lower dim sum's many obstacles for those who do not speak the house language, which was Cantonese. Once, in a typical HSF madhouse scene, we were seated at an as-yet-unwiped table. The waiters were swamped, so my pal Paul grabbed a towel from the sideboard and swabbed our tabletop clean. Jimmy came by just as Paul was finishing, heartily applauding this hungry man’s time-saving maneuver.

Forever after the table-wiping incident Jimmy and Chan provided us with VIP service. When Chan noticed, for example, that we were forever leaving behind a pile of green peppers when we ordered Squid with Black Bean Sauce, he suggested ordering the dish without green peppers. It was a simple but brilliant idea. We got bigger heaps of tender squid and never again left behind strips of quotidian green pepper. This was the first time I learned that Chinese restaurants are almost universally happy to customize dishes according to diners’ preferences.

One day it dawned on us that Jimmy and Chan had not waited on us in a while. A few weeks later we were on line when I happened to spot Jimmy in a bloody apron pushing a hand-truck down the Bowery. "What happened," I asked? He said he had left HSF to open a butcher shop. I asked what happened to Chan, and Jimmy sprouted his now-familiar grin, "he is my partner--come on by-easy to remember--123 Mott."

123 Mott Street aka Chuen Hing Trading, remains to this day my butcher of choice. They have ultra-fresh meats and competitive prices. Plus each time I come in Chan asks about my intentions and offers a Chinese recipe. Foods prepared according to his instructions, like chicken and conch soup, are always easy to make, with just a few ingredients and cooking techniques. Still, the resulting dishes prove time and again that a couple of ingredients, properly combined and prepared, can add up to more than the sum of the parts.

As if there was not enough impetus to shop at 123, I started seeing the Chuen Hing delivery truck outside my two favorite restaurants, Tam Key at 202 Mott Street and High Pearl in far-off Elmhurst, Queens. These were not so much small world coincidences as examples of how people with similar tastes gravitate towards one another.

Once when I visited Chuen Hing, the staff was enjoying a home-cooked meal and I had to wait for a butcher. Not to worry, though, for Chan shared a slice of the staff lunch. It was an unforgettable taste of Chinese cooking artistry, a moist casserole made with three kinds of eggs: fresh chicken eggs, salted duck eggs, and thousand-year-old eggs. Scallions were added, but there was not much else except steam used to heat and meld these puffy bites of luxury. While we were hanging out after the meal, I realized I had not seen Jimmy in a while and asked after him. He had gotten awfully tired of slaughtering, Chan told me, and started a vegetarian foods wholesale business.

One day Chan introduced me to his son, Peter, who treated me to a fine dinner at Congee at 98 Bowery. A giant hunk of steamed sea bass, and salt and pepper squid sprinkled with chopped cashews stand out in my memory, but more fun than the food was young Peter’s knowledge of behind-the-scenes Chinatown information. He seemed to know everyone and everything about Chinatown, whether it was a restaurateur making beaucoup bucks, or about to fold.

Peter is a bright, ambitious, and inquisitive young man and we talked for hours about Chinese food in the boroughs. Time and again we discovered we knew and liked each other’s favorite dishes at little-known locations, for example White Bear on Prince Street in Flushing and their incomparably succulent cold noodles and wontons. Peter and I have become fast friends--like father, like son, like old-time customers. Early in 2005, Peter stopped working at his dad's butcher shop and struck out on his own with East Melange Restaurant Buffet Caterers at 2100 Dixwell Avenue #250, 203-288-8898. On takes Route 15 North to exit 60, and he is in a shopping mall just off the highway in Hamden, Connecticut. One day in the summer of 2005 I spent nearly eight hours with Peter and his dad, inspecting every detail of East Melange, and also driving to nearby New Haven where Peter was busy converting a building into the first Chinese bubble tea restaurant catering to the smart people at Yale University and environs.

East Melange seats hundreds. It is a very spacious and well-lit restaurant that used to be affiliated with the giant East buffet chain with locations in Flushing and Elmhurst, Queens as well as Boston. When Peter took over, many things changed for the better.

In keeping with the feng-shui belief that water will stop evil spirits, the first thing you see when you enter East Melange is a sparkling two-hundred-gallon saltwater aquarium with gorgeous tropical species like the Snowflake Moray Eel, Leopard Shark, Blue-spot Grouper, Naso Tang, Lionfish, and Picasso and Pinktail triggerfish. Alas, these prize specimens are only 'eye candy.'

Behind the tank is a gargantuan spread of food as far as the eye can see. Steam tables, salad bars, desert cases and chefs fill every nook and cranny. The all-you-can eat buffet, $8.99 for lunch; $14.99 for dinner, is an incredible bargain. There are literally hundreds of foods to choose from and it requires forty-five kitchen workers to keep the buffet filled. Chefs specialize in dim sum, roast foods, sushi and sashimi, European foods, or desert. East Melange’s chairs and dining tables come from China but have a distinctly European design. Unlike the décor, the pan-Asian and European menu offerings are not fused.

Sitting with the owners was both fun and challenging. They offered me two different types of crème brulee, for example, and asked which I preferred. I chose correctly--the higher-quality crème brulee that uses a lot more egg than the much less expensive variety. I also made the right choice by selecting the siu mai made by their new chef--the less flavorful ones had been made by a cook who had just been let go.

Chan taught me that the rice noodle wrappers for har gow, the shrimp dumpling as popular in China as hamburgers in the USA must be flattened with a cleaver or else they tend to fall apart. The new chef was hired when the owners saw him with his leg up on the prep table, smacking the cleaver as hard as he could to render the rice noodle tear-proof. The har gow were indeed excellent, as were the fried pork and chive dumplings, and whole scallops on the shell. My favorite buns of all time, gao choy bao, served piping hot from the griddle, featured green chives that fairly melted inside a crisped rice puck. They stick to the bones but good.

Of course, East Melange has a full bar with Mai Tai's, Zombies and other fun cocktails, plus a lengthy tea list including Earl Grey and wild sweet-orange. Fresh juice costs only two bucks, with unlimited refills.

Diners can also order from East Melange's a la carte menu, which includes Korean seafood pancakes, Vietnamese pork rolls, Thai seafood salad, and Japanese vinegar salmon salad. Europe is represented with roast meats like Filet Mignon, Salmon Francaise, and Eggplant Parmigiana. Regular American-Chinese offerings like Sesame Chicken or Beef with Broccoli join more dyed-in-the-wool Chinese specialties like Salt and Pepper Frog, Seafood with XO Sauce, or the distinctly late-20th century Hong Kong mélange, Jumbo Shrimp with Walnuts under a thick lattice of 'Mayo Sauce.'

At most steam tables it is advisable to select the items that have just come out of the kitchen. The gizzards were tasty but no longer hot, while sliced-to-order Peking duck in steamed bread was fully satisfying, as were slices of London broil and barbecued Korean short ribs. Appetizers that were intentionally cold, like jelly fish with sesame flavor, were perfect, and it was fun to finish the meal with a distinctly non-Chinese treat: white-chocolate covered cashew clusters, as many as you could eat, of course.

Diners do not see a lot of work that takes place behind the scenes. East Melange restaurant spends a monthly 'nut' of $140,000 just to open its doors. "What if an entire professional football team came for the buffet," I ask? The Chan theory is that while they might lose money on big-eating individuals, there are always children and other light eaters to make up the difference. Peter oversees every detail of kitchen operations, and he is also the one who runs unforeseen non-food errands, like the one I accompanied him on for waterproof tape.

It was a privilege to go thru the Staff Only doors, downstairs to the East Melange chock-a-block storeroom, as heavily piled as a Chinatown grocery. I also got to go behind swinging doors to the kitchens-within-kitchens, where dozens of chefs nimbly slip around blazing stoves, towering piles of food, and of course, each other. Not only are there giant woks, ceiling-high ovens, jumbo freezer-fridges, and a deep freeze, there is even a special cooler room for warm foods.

East Melange is intent on giving their customers a great experience. It is one of few Chinese restaurants that provides a comment form, asking diners to rate the food, service, cleanliness, and overall experience. The friendly staff bustles about constantly, explaining the system to new customers and greeting return visitors with a hearty hello. East Melange also maintains a mailing list; sends special coupons for birthdays; and actively seek suggestions about dishes customers would like to see added to the menu.

Peter Chan, owner of East Melange, is a rare second-generation Chinese-American. He holds a bachelor's degree from New York University and dreams of Yale Law School, yet has opted for now to stay in the Chinese food industry. It is worth a trip to Hamden to see and taste the astounding array of cuisines Peter's serving at East Melange. And, it will not be too long before another generation of twenty-somethings are standing in line for snacks and tea at his lounge set to open on New Haven’s Howe Street in 2006.
Harley Spiller thanks Michael Mahrer for taking him to dim sum the first time and was a proud panelist at the Asia Society about: Dim Sum and Then Some last October. On another note, he awaits confirmation from the folks at Guinness as to shattereding their existing world record of most menus collected by an individual, held by a Florida man whose four thousand plus were collected for fifty-two years. Harley and friends counted more than five thousand menus, only got halfway through the boxes housing his collection, and believe he has more than twice that number. His final count to be completed soon is ever increasing. Do send yours!

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