Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taiwanese Burgers at North China Restaurant

I had a bad cough towards the end of last week. Neither of my parents’ doctoral degrees came in medicine, but that didn’t stop them from announcing that I probably had whooping cough. I decided to spend the weekend in the confines of my apartment to rest up, conquer my illness, and prove that, although my immune system might get caught napping once in a while, it gets up quick.

I tried to get friends to come over and watch movies, but telling them the whooping cough story wasn’t a wise choice.

Bored alone in my shadowy apartment, I contemptuously watched through my windows as people enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day. I took another swig of Tropicana and became consumed with self-pity. Figuring that comfort food would improve my mood, I cooked a big bowl of spaghetti for lunch, but all I could think about was how poorly my pomodoro compared to the version at Scarpetta (picture, below).

After reattaching myself to the couch, I sat through a heart-wrenching screening of Rachel Getting Married. It was now dinner time, and after vicariously living Anne Hathaway’s fractured relationship with her family, I craved comfort food more than ever.

It was time to call in the big guns: dirt-cheap, Americanized Chinese food. Is there anything more reassuring than the salty, greasy goop of your typical corner-store Chinese restaurant? You know, the thousands of hole-in-the-wall joints offering the same, time-tested menu perfectly designed for our unsophisticated American palates? If a swamp of starch and MSG thickened hoisin sauce can’t revive your spirits, you know you’re in some serious trouble.

I hadn’t tested out any Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, so I got on Google, and my first search result was a place called North China on Georgetown Ave. A quick scan of the menu triggered a Pavlovian rush of endorphins. Hunan shrimp, kung pao beef, moo shi pork – all the right classics to help a sad soul.

I picked up my phone, dialed the delivery-line, and was placed on hold. Then my evening took an unexpected turn.

Reading through the rest of North China’s website, I found a series of other menus, mysteriously labeled “menu 2, menu 3, menu 4.” At first, the scanned versions looked like every menu you’ve ever seen at a cheap Chinese restaurant: low prices printed in red font on thin paper, good for slipping into your to-go bag. But then I noticed that the generic categories were gone. “Healthy Diet” and “Chicken Dishes” were replaced by strange words like “Traditional Chinese” and “Taiwanese & Shanghai Style.”

“Hello?” came the voice at the other end of the line.

And the dishes in these categories totally defied Western expectations. My jaw dropped as I read down the long list of exotica: braised fish stomach, tomato shrimp with scrambled egg, smelt with peanuts, and so on. No kung-pao? Where was General Tso? Was the war over?

“Hello? Sir?” I realized that North China was about to hang up on me and stammered through my order as I admired the options.

“That’ll be 57 dollars and 23 cents,” the girl said. I snapped out of my trance and realized I’d ordered no less than six dishes! I don’t know if it was the need for comfort after fighting whooping cough all day and two hours of Ann Hathaway in tear-smeared make-up, or just the thrill of anticipating interesting food, but I felt like I would need every bite.

A little later, the delivery guy handed me two bags stuffed with smelt, jelly-fish, hamburger Taiwanese-style, crispy intestine, conch in red hot sauce, and cherries with beef.

I pried the to-go lids and sampled. All were interesting and generally good, but the third, the hamburger Taiwanese style, or gua bao, was fantastic. The burger consists of fatty, melt-in-your mouth, braised spare-rib. It’s like a shot in the arm especially when you’re expecting an average, dried-up beef paddy. And it’s topped with salty-sour pickled cabbage, relish, and cilantro. Not to mention the ingredient that really puts it over the top: they sprinkle it with that peanut-sugar powder that works so well in Pad Thai. The bun is fresh and steamed, and lightly touched with, I think, oyster sauce. I promptly added this dish to my list of 6,348 reasons to stay away from McDonald’s.

Next, I tried the crispy intestine, which was fine – I liked how they fill the hollow parts with white onion – but I kept thinking about that burger, which, sadly, was completely devoured. How had I never heard of these things before?

An internet search suggested a possible explanation: few people have. I only found two acknowledgements of their existence. One was a quick write-up in the Los Angeles Area Digest Weekly that called them a “madly wondrous thing.” The Digest shows good taste but doesn’t register a blip on the culinary radar screen.

The other was a chat room thread on Chowhound titled, “Where can I find Taiwanese burger in DC/Maryland.” Practically nowhere, according to the responses. “Good luck finding a place around DC,” said dwbengals. Bluejeans22 lamented, “I haven’t seen them on the menus anywhere in NoVa.” Strangely, no one brought up North China; I guess maybe this 2007 conversation predated their version. Chowhound reported only one Taiwanese burger sighting in the whole region: Bob’s Noodle 66.

I quickly saved Bob’s Rockville address as a note in my cell phone, grabbed my car keys, and charged the door, hoping that I’d get there before reason caught up with my feet and interfered with my stomach’s agenda. It didn’t work. I stopped in my tracks. A trip to Bob’s just didn’t make sense. Damn whooping cough. Plus I already had about four pounds of good Chinese food sitting on my dining room table.

I slumped back to my buffet and took care of business. The conch with “red hot sauce” had good texture, but I thought it was a little duplicitous to give American customers the expectation of Tobasco when the sauce was actually chili oil. The strips of jelly fish had just the right crunch and weren’t too salty. The smelt was your average dried fish but smartly paired with peanuts and the kick of sliced jalapeno. The cherry and beef dish was … well, I’ll have to tell you later. The five dishes that came before it had me pretty full.

When I hung up my chopsticks for the night, my cough was still there, but North China’s innovative Chinese comfort food had given my spirits a huge boost. When you’re sick and resting up, no matter how deprived you are of the sunny weather outside, know that you too can brighten your home by ordering a bag of Taiwanese burgers to your door.

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