Top Chef

The Lams' cluttered, delicious Asian-American dream.

First impressions mean a lot. This is something my mother taught me growing up in the lace-curtain suburbs of Rochester, New York, until I developed something of a complex about it.For my first communion, I looked like a midget doorman, short only the top hat. First day of college, I was dolled up like some kind of punk-rock pirate—all nose rings and bandannas, torn jeans, combat boots, and flannel shirts. First day of work at a tiny little pizza place just down the street from my high school, I arrived dressed in pointy-toed black dress shoes, slacks, and a cadaverous blue button-down dress shirt with a butterfly collar. I'd been hired as a second-string dishwasher and tray-scraper and I showed up looking like the lead singer of Foreigner, or worse.That first communion, though, must've set me right by Jesus, because since then I've walked deliberately into my fair share of hells and come out clean on the other side. On my first day of work—despite the fact that I broke the dish machine, flooded the kitchen, and hadn't the slightest clue what I was supposed to be doing—I wasn't fired, and ended up falling totally, completely, head-over-heels in love with the bash and clamor of working kitchens. And on my first day of college I met the woman who would many, many years later become my wife—and who never fails to remind me what an utter tool I looked like, wandering dumbfounded across campus dressed like a low-rent John Bender from The Breakfast Club and trying to come off cool.The trick is to know when first impressions matter—specifically, when they ought to be ignored for the possibility of good times, good food, or serious fun. With restaurants, it's all about knowing what doors are worth walking through.My first time walking through the door of Mandarin Chef in the University District rendered the following impressions:My goodness, this place is small: 10 tables, maybe, all crammed into a space no bigger than a storefront T-shirt shop, pushed in close against the walls and against each other, with a short counter at the back of the room and a door leading back to a kitchen that must've been the size of a closet. The left-hand wall was all mirrors. The lighting was bright and harsh, and left the place burning like a kung pao supernova.My goodness, this place is dirty. Every table not occupied was still covered in the detritus of meals gone before: glass-topped tables smeared with sauce and stacked with plates, the mirrored wall smudged with fingerprints, the floor a wreck of dropped silver, wadded napkins, and chairs all askew. It looked like a party, 20-strong and ravenous, had just exited out the back, leaving so quickly that their plates were still warm.And then I thought: What is that delightful smell?Inside, the three of us chose the least befouled and sticky table we could, and settled in while one tiny woman with a big smile puttered around the dining room, acting as hostess, waitress, busboy, guide, captain, and cashier. When she saw that our table was dirty, she apologized and attacked it with a damp cloth. She brought us a pot of tea and small glasses, cold bottles of Tsingtao, and menus—then vanished into the back and left us alone to stare, goggle-eyed, at the bounty available from the kitchen.Mandarin Chef has been around for 13 years in this shotgun shack of a space, serving Sichuan chicken wings, dumplings, and noodles to generations of college students and starving grubniks questing after that sweet hit of Chinese authenticity. It exists where it does because owners Sang and Lang Lam came here from Sichuan province 35 years ago, following a daughter who'd come to UW to learn to be a dentist and staying because a good cook (which Sang is) can work anywhere. They'd always wanted to open a restaurant—a small place where Sang could do the work he'd trained for as a cook in China, owning and running restaurants. They wanted to do it here so their children could get good educations, and so they could protect the food traditions they'd grown up with and introduce them to a whole new crowd.It took time. Sang worked for years behind the swinging doors at Maple Leaf's Snappy Dragon before he and Lang could get a place of their own, before they could cook the food they wanted to and assemble the menu they'd dreamed of together. With Mandarin Chef, they got it. And the menu here is big. Seriously big. It reads in places like a high-speed collision between the "authenticity" that some foodies yearn for when sampling and dismissing American Chinese restaurants, and the actual, true Chinese-immigrant cuisine as practiced thousands of miles from the alleys, districts, and cities that birthed it.Sang cooks sizzling rice soup with chicken, shrimp, and colorful vegetables alongside seafood soup where everything (scallop, crab meat, egg white, vegetables) is white—like a Chinese blanquette de veau, a deliberate blankness of the gastronomic color wheel. He does clay-pot tofu—an open-fire throwback to Sichuan peasant dishes that have been cooked for centuries in rural China—and kung pao chicken deeply spiced with chile peppers and tossed with a handful of peanuts. It's a dish invented in Sichuan, part of its long, noble culinary tradition—yet there's nothing more American than kung pao these days, nothing more identified with the American-Chinese immigrant canon.To order anything here is to receive, from Sang and by Lang's hands, a story about a Chinese chef cooking in America for Americans with Chinese tastes. It's a story of immigration and long-held dreams, played out in dumplings and noodles. "This is why we do this," says Lang. "We keep traditional as possible. We keep good quality. We cook for our children, and for children at the university."They cook because their story isn't done yet.I was at Mandarin Chef with two other people. We would eventually order enough for six.Chris eats regularly in the I.D. His favorite place is Kau Kau on King Street, and he ordered the pork and broccoli because he wanted to know if Mandarin Chef's barbecued pork could hold a candle to the whole slabs of barbecued pork hung in the window of the restaurant he frequents—swinging amid the roasted ducks, fresh from the ovens in the back of the house.Parisa wanted noodles because noodles are what she always orders here—hand-rolled, freshly cut noodles, made in the kitchen by Sang, just 10 paces from where we sat. She wanted food made, from start to finish, by one's own hands and placed before a stranger, because that is what eating out is supposed to be: a connection between one person and another, one culture and another, one cook and one college girl, hungry for the comfort of something she knows and loves.I asked for salt-and-pepper shrimp because at almost every Chinese restaurant I visit everywhere in the country, I have to try the salt-and-pepper shrimp—because once, long ago, I ate the greatest salt-and-pepper shrimp there ever was, and like some kind of pathetic junkie always scrambling after the pure magic of that mythical first hit, I've been searching for something as good ever since. I've never found it. I've made peace with the fact that I probably never will.Lang talked us through the menu, all our many options, all the possibilities for customization—how hot we wanted this, what kind of meat with that, what sort of noodles with this over here. She seemed very concerned that we get a good spread of meat and seafood, that we all have some vegetables, that everyone has tea and chopsticks and the necessary sauces. She asked me if I wanted my shrimp served shell-on or -off, and I said, "On, please.""Crispy?""Yes, crispy."Shell-on and crispy was how I'd had the salt-and-pepper shrimp two decades ago at a small Chinese restaurant in New York, where I'd worked for two brothers both crooked as road-killed snakes. Every day at this restaurant, there was a family meal: generally some kind of congee with hard-boiled egg, or a stew of questionable leftovers that the Chinese staff all loved and I loathed like I was being forced to eat sautéed Superballs in used motor oil—and I ate it every day because I was young and broke and had no other options. Once in a while, as a mercy to me, the sole round-eye on staff, the brothers would have the kitchen cook salt-and-pepper shrimp with the shells on, and I would pounce on the big serving platter like a starved dog while the rest of the crew turned up their noses and drank tea. These were the best salt-and-pepper shrimp I'd ever had—deep-fried in a thick paste of salt speckled with pepper, served in a thin chile sauce as hot as liquid fire. In all my years of looking, I've never found anything that compared.We talked, the three of us, about barbecue pork and Chinese shrimp and noodles, about the things we love and the things we don't. When the food arrived, we shared it, first digging into a massive platter of 26 jiao-zi: steamed Sichuan-style dumplings, one-bite small, each handmade and absolutely delicious dipped in soy or dredged through the bright-crimson hot-pepper sauce brought to the table or, better yet, dosed with both. The dumpling skins were thick and stiff and damp from the steam, the meat inside savory and just juicy enough to cut the blandness of the skins. I could've happily eaten these all day—just sitting there, camping at my table, alternating beers with pots of tea and watching the world go slowly by—but there was so much more food to come.The barbecued pork with broccoli was neon-bright: red meat and verdant green broccoli and sauce as dark and sweet as a puddle of espresso thickened with honey. But the pork tasted vaguely sausagey in a way that no one at the table was crazy for. My shrimp were delicious—not as good as the ones I remembered, but then none of the hundreds of orders I've had since then have been, and I doubt that any of the hundreds I will eat before I die will be.Still, I sat there happily, pulling the little legs off and eating them like candy, then sucking the salt and pepper and chile flakes off the shell before crunching through it and eating the big shrimp whole. The noodles were lovely and soft and lay in wrinkled mounds on the plate, studded with bits of meat and green onions like shards of jade. The difference between machine-made noodles in a Chinese restaurant and hand-stretched, hand-formed, hand-cut noodles is the same as the difference between pasta made with flour, egg, and the delicate care of an Italian chef and dried pasta shaken from a box—which is to say, all the difference in the world. In a good noodle you can taste the care, attention, and expertise of the cook who made it. In a great one, you can taste the 10,000 noodles that came before the one you're eating at that moment. Sang's noodles were solidly good, nearly great, but served with such overwhelming generosity and pride from the kitchen that it was hard to tell the difference.I would return for more dumplings; for half a duck on the bone, served with steamed pork buns, off Sang's special menu; for noodles of my own (Singapore chow fun with chicken in a smoky curry sauce). I would sit and eat behind steamed windows on a cold night, in a dining room even more wrecked than the first time I'd seen it, and, alone, try to imagine where Sang had learned to cook duck, to handle curry, to encompass such breadth in a place so small.First impressions: They're the important ones. At Mandarin Chef, the excellence of the food and the friendliness of the house is belied by the small, run-down, nondescript space, the cluttered floor, the tables decorated with the remains of someone else's dinner. But it was that first instant—stepping through the door with friends, seeing the small and terrible wreck of the place, smelling in the hot, damp air the scent of great food hidden somewhere in the back—that I will always most powerfully recall. It will be the heavy thunk of the dumpling platter hitting our table, the tumbled pile of shrimp on my plate, the first bite of Sang and Lang's Sichuan jiao-zi, and the understanding of the years and miles it'd taken them to bring these flavors, finally, to me.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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