Posted by: Anna | October 24, 2011

On Dreamy Dinners

Prior to leaving, I studied Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episodes of places we were headed (and a few we weren’t). The China episode was one of the first I saw, and one of the reasons I kept watching. Anthony devoured a Sichuan hot pot in Chengdu, sweating and grinning, and I dreamed of doing the same.

I wasn’t the only one dreaming of dinner; Tommy had a dream dinner of his own. Not necessarily location specific, he had visions of enchiladas haunting his nights. Twelve months without any decent Mexican food does take its toll on native Texans. After searching and endlessly questioning confused locals, an answer finally appeared – Peter’s Tex Mex in Chengdu. When he saw the first review on Trip Advisor is from a Texan, who gives it five stars, he knew his hope would be realized.

We made the walk to Peter’s on our first night in Chengdu. Walking in was like being teleported to another continent — North America, and more specifically Texas. Perhaps a bit overdone with cheesy Americana / Texana decor, including one very large Texas flag, it felt like a little like a cross between a small town craft store (cute slogan signs – such as “If you’re smoking in here, you better be on fire” – this one is a highlight since no-smoking isn’t really a concept that has arrived in foreign restaurants) – and the home of a collector of beaten down cowboy hats. The menu featured well-known favorites like quesadillas, chili, chicken-fried steak, steak finger baskets, and….enchiladas!

I think you can guess what Tommy ordered. I had quesadillas, which were pretty good. To wash down his enchiladas, Tommy did not go for the margarita, but a more Tommy-like choice of a large chocolate milkshake. Also delicious. The food came out quickly, fresh, and smothered in cheese. The enchiladas sat next to a pile of Mexican rice and refried beans. It was great.

Me, eating quesadillas in front of a Texas flag - not a sight Tommy sees too often on this trip.

My dream finally came to be on our last (of two) nights in Chengdu. After spending our first one on Mexican food (which is definitely still better in Texas, even if this is the most passable example we’ve found), we spent our second night on hot pot. I remember hot pot from the fairly authentic Chinese restaurant in Garland, near my parents house when I was in elementary school. They would not sell hot pot to non-Chinese. It achieved its mystique for me at age eight.

Hot pot is one of China’s most famous cuisines, with entire cavernous restaurants devoted to it in Chengdu (its birthplace). Some are “themed” – duck hot pot, crab hot pot, etc. As newbies, we opted for regular hot pot. It was late when we arrived, and the restaurant was winding down, with only a few messy tables of people left, shouting slurred “gambei” (sort of like the Chinese version of “cheers”) and slurping up the last bits of beer and food. Normally I hate to be the last customer, but this was my only chance to eat hotpot.

We were seated through our normal procedure in China: we hold up two fingers, the hostess holds up two fingers, and then points at a table. She speaks no English; we speak no Chinese. She brings us a long list of ingredients (thankfully in English, with Chinese translations on the side). In ordering hot pot, we can choose three options – “hot” (red, peppercorn – chile based broth), “not spicy” (chicken and mushroom based broth), or “yin and yang”, sometimes called “half and half” (which is actually half spicy and half not spicy). We have had some amazingly spicy food in China, so to save Tommy’s tongue from certain destruction and to appease my desire to try the spicy, we opted for half and half. That was the easy part.

Then we were back to ordering ingredients. The list was long, and weird. I mean really, really weird. We later tried to name all the normal foods on the list, and we could only come up with cabbage, potato, tomato, mushrooms and corn. In the next category of things we eat on the trip but don’t normally eat at home might be bamboo shoots, sliced lotus root, and kelp. And then it really took off – quail eggs, duck tongue, goose intestine, bacteria (not sure how that comes) and bezoar stone. I didn’t even know that was a real thing; I’d only seen in Harry Potter as a potion ingredient. Shows how little I know about food after all.

We tried to make a selection that was somewhat adventurous yet still would be something that wouldn’t totally freak us out to eat. We are pretty adventurous eaters, but China really knocks us down a notch in ego on that account. We have learned that there are a good many things we do not like to eat, and even if we order them because they are interesting, we end up grossed out and hungry. Baby steps are key.

Our broth arrived almost immediately, and started to boil. Actually the more I think about it, this does seem more and more like making a potion instead of eating a meal. We watched with trepidation and curiosity. I stuck my finger in the hot to taste it; it was searing. The waitress also plopped down two small bowls of clear, brownish sauce and a fairly sizeable bowl of cilantro and another of chopped garlic. We debated if the cilantro was to go in the dipping sauce or the broth. Finally, Tommy gestured to the waitress to ask for help. She immediately started mixing up our sauce – adding a handful of cilantro and an even bigger one of garlic. She reached under our table (who knew, a wonderland of additional flavorings for our sauces resided under there?) and started to add salt and sugar. She produced oyster sauce and soy / fish (not sure which one) sauce and gave us a questioning look. We responded with our own questioning look. She decided no, and put the sauces away.

I'm excited to try the hot pot, now that I can smell the broth and we've figured out the whole dipping sauce thing.

With this, our pot started to simmer. It smelled fantastic. Still apprehensive, we turned to our tray of ingredients. We had ordered bamboo, kelp, mushrooms, potatoes, duck tongue, and dumplings. The duck tongues were beautifully presented, and odd. For the rest, we had stuck it pretty safe, and felt good about our choices. The waitress sensed our hesitation and started plopping ingredients into our broth. We watched them simmer away, wondering how long a duck tongue needs to cook in a hot pot.

Our ingredients to cook in the hot pot. Notice the top right corner - duck tongues.

We had two big ladles to stir the simmering bits around and scoop them out, and we experimented with that just to get the feel of the thing. Finally, we could wait no longer, and we scooped out a mushroom each from the not spicy broth. Delicious! I tried the bamboo from the spicy broth – delicious! It didn’t get as spicy as I had feared, but had a pleasant burn from the peppercorns. We looked each other in the eye, steeled ourselves, and each reached for a duck tongue. I ate first; it was chewy, savory, spicy, and really good. Tommy ate his next while I looked on — he also smiled. Our weirdest choice was not inedible – it was good, if tiny.

Getting ready to try the first bite of duck tongue...

We continued to fish out bits and eat them dipped in sauce, which was less garlicky than I expected. The restaurant cleared out, and we finished our meal to the sounds of the staff cleaning up. To their credit, they never rushed us or acted at all put out that we had come so late and been the last. Our whole meal was less than $20, and it was more than a meal. It was a dream from 21 years ago come true.

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Responses

  1. Did you quack up to any funny things you dreamed that night?

    Couldn’t resist. Looks like a great meal.

  2. You are more brave and daring than I am!. I also have to say that the Choclate milkshake/ mexican food combo sounds almost as awful as duck tounges.
    XOXOXO, Kita


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