If there is one guaranteed way to shake up standard dinner repartee with otherwise politically and culturally savvy friends, then it’s to ask whether the Chinese food you all are eating is authentic.
Half of the table will turn to you, eyes akimbo in disgust, aghast that you would even think to use that word in a conversation about food here in 2022. The other half, pausing to wipe the bits of cream cheese from the corners of their mouths, will look at you sympathetically, as though maybe you fell and hit your head on the way to the table, and ask, “Surely you’re not implying that crab Rangoon is authentic?”
It is. But more on that in a bit.
Despite our purest intentions, the word “authentic” in food discourse has worn out its welcome. Yes, the majority of us might use the word to describe the foods we hold near and dear – like grandma’s chicken and dumplings or Bubbe’s rugelach – but have you seen how the word has been used lately?
Take tacos, for instance. More often than not, when a food influencer asks her followers where she can get “authentic” tacos, what she’s really asking for are tacos at a certain price-point, most likely served from a truck, preferably parked in a back alley.
And why should that be? “Authentic” has come to be a synonym for “cheap,” or “food from some place with questionable sanitation,” or worse yet, as a guilt-free way to eat other food from an unfamiliar culture.
So much so that, as it applies to that dinner you’re having with your friends, you might actually be better off saying, “There is no such thing as authentic Chinese food.”
Then both halves of the table can be upset.
There is some truth to that statement, though, and for us here in Charlotte, the discussion is as active and delicious as ever. Lam’s Kitchen in Matthews and Ho Ho Cherry House in Elizabeth are both excellent restaurants, in fact, to frame that discussion, each one schooling diners on the meaning of “authenticity” as it is applied to the food of the vibrant, sprawling Chinese diaspora.
Ho Ho Cherry House and the History of Crab Rangoon
The crab Rangoon at Ho Ho Cherry House, by the way, are as close to being textbook ideals of that Tiki-cum-American-Chinese food staple as I’ve ever seen.
Tiki? Oh, yes.
By some accounts, crab Rangoon was born of a post-WWII obsession with all things Tiki. The nascent Tiki food culture of the time borrowed heavily from a new and popular cuisine popping up on the West Coast in restaurants owned by Chinese immigrants. It was then zhuzhed up with sugar, pineapple and paper umbrellas.
This coincided with the rise of cream cheese as a staple ingredient in American homes, and it’s as if the kitchens in Tiki restaurants at the time thought, “Why not? Let’s see what happens when we fry it.”
Rangoon – now Yangon in Myanmar, some 1,800+ miles away from Beijing and therefore far enough away from the U.S. to make people go “Ooohh” – was just the right bit of exotic branding to apply to something that couldn’t be more American, for what is crab Rangoon other than fried dough filled with sweet cream cheese?
Diners at the time couldn’t get enough of this new snack, and Chinese immigrants borrowed back.
Crab Rangoon thus came to be because our great-grandparents willed it into existence, and those new American-Chinese restaurants were astute enough to keep frying them up in batches.
And at Ho Ho Cherry House, they are a fried wonder, crisp and airy, as delicate as a hummingbird egg, and stuffed generously with cream that you think tastes of crab only because “crab” is in the name.
They eat well by themselves, and you’ll want to eat them quickly, the better to marvel at how fresh from the fryer they are. But they are even better doused in a red sauce so coy and fluorescent that it would surprise no one if it turned out to be liquid, savory Jolly Ranchers.
And therein lies the appeal.
Sweet, salty and fried; is there a more profanely delicious combination? So much of the food at Ho Ho Cherry House, in fact, is acknowledgement of this truth – directly descended, as it were, from the great evolution of the Chinese immigrant experience as it branched off into something new and distinctly American, their cuisine constantly evolving to accommodate the tastes of their new neighbors and customers.
I’ve come to be obsessed with their crispy scallion chicken for this very reason.
The kitchen here knows that fried chicken is in our blood and therefore seems to spend their time coming up with ways to make a perfect thing even more so. How to improve upon fat chunks of chicken, superbly fried and impossibly juicy? Slather it in a brown sauce that’s mischievous and spicy, with flecks of chili sparkling through like glitter.
Each bite is carnal pleasure, and the crisp batons of scallions are so pungent that taking in their aroma is not so far removed from huffing.
Ho Ho Cherry House has been in its current Elizabeth location for over 10 years, and when the pandemic hit, the restaurant pivoted to takeout-only. Business hasn’t missed a beat. Is this because of teriyaki beef on a stick, sweet and tender like a lullaby? Or because of creamy, cold sesame noodles, perfect for mornings hungover after a night of drinking cheap beer?
It’s all part of the same thing, I would argue; authentic examples of a Chinese cuisine evolved to adapt to its surroundings, and food so delicious that it’s pandemic-proof.
Lam’s Kitchen and the Formidable Hong Kong Lobster
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong lobster at Lam’s Kitchen already has a cult following.
It comes out on a plate, deep-fried, flayed, and posed in a way that makes it look like it put up a good fight. It is buried under a mountain of crisp ginger, scallions, and garlic, which work well as leftovers with rice the next day.
The lobster meat itself, once you finally get to it, is unimaginably sweet. The whole dish is the seafood equivalent of a statement piece. And if lobster isn’t available, a crab version is dressed equally to impress.
At Lam’s, this lobster represents a different branch of the evolutionary tree – food that is more in the style of what one might be tempted to call “authentic Chinese,” but food that I would argue is no more or no less authentic than its distant American cousin at Ho Ho Cherry House.
In fact, it’s there in the name. Lam’s Kitchen is also 祖家小厨, or “ancestral chef.” In other words, the same immigrant experience that led to the evolution of a cuisine meant to appeal more to the local palate, here evolves into something more deferential and referential to the source.
The results, which pay homage to both classic Cantonese and Szechuan styles, are universally thrilling.
You’ll be hard pressed to find more tender beef brisket anywhere, and at Lam’s it comes floating in a hotpot with a vibrant and glossy mala broth. The broth – oh, that heat is nearly effervescent as it numbs the tongue and clears the sinuses.
Take a bite of the daikon radish, which soaks up that broth like a sponge, then ask for extra napkins to wipe the sweat from your brow.
Just as outstanding here are any number of the noodle dishes. My favorite has been seafood chow fun with egg gravy. Squid, shrimp and sweet, fat scallops are tossed together with vegetables and stir-fried in a sleek brown sauce. The chow fun noodles, thick like a lazy tongue, inhale the “wok hei,” and their smoky flavor is exhilarating.
Lam’s Kitchen, located in a strip mall in Matthews, is a place to bring friends. Every time I’ve been, the tables and booths have been filled with groups and laughter. The sparse, dark interior doesn’t allow for distractions from the food, except for the fish tanks.
On my last visit – in between bites of salt and pepper pork chops, which some in my group thought were the greatest things in the world – my friends and I were captivated by the giant Dungeness crab.
Conversation shifted immediately from “authentic Chinese food” to that crab, as we speculated, eyes akimbo in wonder and envy, who might eventually walk in to order that feast.
With the site of that gargantuan crab in front of us, authenticity momentarily gave way to comedy. In fact, the only way the meal could have ended with more flourish would have been to crack open a fortune cookie to find a slip of paper that said, “There’s no such thing as authentic Chinese food.” At least then, everyone would have been in on the joke.