Menu: Chicken Stir-Fry with Bok Choy
From the Garden: bok choy, red bell peppers
Growing up, we rarely ate Chinese food at home. Because I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, where excellent Chinese restaurants are easy to come by, I’m sure my mom reasoned, “Why bother?” On the occasions my mother cooked Chinese, the only thing I can remember is Mary Pang egg rolls slid from their ubiquitous red and yellow carton onto an ancient cookie sheet and plain white rice flooded with briny soy sauce. I’m sure there were other dishes, but the egg rolls and the rice must have been all that I ever ate because that’s all that sticks in my memory.
Our go-to Chinese restaurant was a dark, smoky grotto with a red neon light that sizzled into the night sky. This being the suburbs, it was tucked into a strip mall near our home. The lobby was outfitted with a hulking cigarette machine (this was the early 1980s), a contraption I found fascinating with its glowing buttons. Next to it sat a massive fish tank, back when such things were novelties in restaurants, casting an eerie bluish pall over my face as I pressed my face to the glass. But the best part of the lobby was the illuminated glass case that the cash register sat upon, which housed what I can only describe as a cookie train. Boxed sandwich cookies were “glued” together in complex configurations to form different “train cars;” the open box cars transported slim packages of chewing gum. I’m not sure what the cookie train was for, or what it had to do with a Chinese restaurant, but the same one graced that case the many years we frequented the restaurant. Although it was undoubtedly petrified I was charmed by it, and every time we paid at the cash register I begged my mom to buy it for me, to which she spoke the familiar refrain of parents everywhere: “Maybe next time.”
From the lobby we walked up a short flight of stairs to the smoking section, with nothing separating it from the non-smoking section other than space (this was the early 1980s), and I loved the novelty of sitting in the U-shaped, high-backed booths that lined the back wall. The menu – which proudly declared, “No MSG!” at the bottom – offered a dizzying array of choices, and while my parents always ordered a variety of dishes to share between the two of them I stuck with the tried-and-true choice of barbecued pork and wonton soup. But the best part of the experience was that it was the only time my parents let me order a Shirley Temple, and for the rest of my life I will always associate grenadine-laced ginger ale with Chinese restaurants.
Maikael and I grew up in the same town, just minutes from one another, although we didn’t meet each other until we went off to college, and when I asked him if his family ever went to this particular restaurant, he said they instead frequented South China Doll a few cities over. “But I always ordered the barbecued pork that you dipped in ketchup and sesame seeds and that really hot mustard, oh, and wonton soup,” he said. “Me, too!” I cried, as if I had just discovered some spectacular fact about him. In reality, I am pretty sure that all children visiting Chinese restaurants in the Seattle suburbs ordered barbecued pork and wonton soup.
In my ongoing effort to broaden Abra’s palate and ensure that she staves off a steady diet of barbecued pork and wonton soup when we begin visiting Chinese restaurants with her, this week I decided to make a stir-fry in the wok my dad bought me last Christmas. While it was undoubtedly as authentic as Mary Pang’s egg rolls, it employed the beautiful jade green bok choy and the last of the red bell peppers that I had just harvested from my garden, along with tender chunks of chicken that swam in a gingery sauce, which I served atop a bed of imported Jasmine rice (this was not the early 1980s). Abra loved the chicken, the peppers, and scooped many spoonfuls of rice into her mouth, but looked distressed at the bright green ribbons of bok choy that clung to her fingers, even when I told her it was from our garden.
I’m also pretty sure there was no MSG in my stir-fry.
Curious if the beloved Chinese restaurant of my youth was still in business half a lifetime later, a quick Google search confirmed it, indeed, was. It’s been renovated, yielding a brighter space that doesn’t look as cave-like as I remember it. I imagine the cigarette machine was hauled off long ago with the smoking section. But I was heartened to see that the big booths still line the back wall, and that the tables with the lattice-back chairs that were so popular in the 1980s are still there. I couldn’t help but wonder if the cookie train was still chugging away in the lobby.
Elizabeth Grant Thomas is a regular contributor to Edible Santa Fe who also writes at her site, elizabethgrantthomas.com. She can be found here every other Tuesday chronicling her family’s journey “back to the table.”