Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14a: Chicken Lo Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Chicken Lo Mein

Beige-on-beige. Try to spot the chicken!

What exactly is this dish? Sliced chicken stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Canotnese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. this form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and while there is protein in the lo mein, it’s really in a pretty lopsided balance with the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with little relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect. chicken, the blandests of the proteins, does very little indeed to lift the combination out of the doldrums.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.

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Tasting the Conspiracy, item L13: Beef with Snow Peas

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Oy, fallen way behind again. I still remember them all pretty well though.

Beef with Snow Peas

Yup, that’s beef, alright. With snow peas. And carrots. Nobody said there would be carrots!

What exactly is this dish? Slices of stir-fried beef with snow peas, just like it says on the tin, but in addition to snow peas, there are also carrots. There was also a single water chestnut, which I can only assume was a mistake. All the vegetables are fairly lightly cooked, to keep some snap and crunch. Of course there’s sauce too, and it’s exactly the brown sauce you expect. Oh well, they can’t all be imaginative.

How authentically Chinese is it? I’ve done my “veggies in brown sauce” spiel many times by now, and the capsule version is that protein and veggies stirfried in a simple soy-and-ginger sauce is something it’s reasonable to believe Chinese people probably would eat because it’s kind of the obvious way to combine a bunch of standard ingredients. That having been said: while snow peas are absolutely a traditional part of Chinese cuisine (both the pods and the young leaves, the latter of which is not really popular in America), it seems to usually favor a simpler presentation as a side dish rather than accenting a meat dish. I’m sure this combination has been eaten in China, because you don’t get 1.3 billion people without some of them trying out every viable permutation of your cuisine, but I’m not sure it would be regarded there as a particularly distinguished variation on the plain mix-and-match stirfry.

Is it any good? It works for me. Beef is a bit tough (at least in a stirfry) and the textural meatiness of it contrasted well with the crisp crunch on the vegetables. The brown sauce was, eh, a brown sauce. Within any specific class of dishes there’s straight-up not a lot of variation. But this was a reasonably good representative of the family.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce was pretty thin. Rice that I shoved into the entree side of the container picked up some oily, beefy flavor, but it mostly wanted soy sauce to give it flavor in the end.

Escaping the Conspiracy, item L12 (or L2a): Shrimp Chow Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Still working through backlog, but this one’s particularly a change of pace in some ways. See, I couldn’t stand the idea of having what promised to be a dish substantively equivalent to one I’d just had in the form of item L11 (chicken chow mein) and coming away from the experience no wiser than before, so I figured I might take this opportunity o tweak a different variable—even though it was the same menu item, I’d go to a different Conspiracy front to see if it was realized differently in different places. With that thought in mind, I went to China One. China One is my actual local takeout; Double Dragon was the nearest of the well-beloved ones when I first moved here; Great Wok, on Preston Highway, is much closer (literally less than a quarter mile from my house) but had a lower reputation than Double Dragon and wasn’t in the Conspiracy, so it never really became a regular haunt of mine. At that point China One came into the picture, and they were even closer than Great Wok and seemed to do a somewhat better job, although after a few mediocrities there I entered into a pattern: China One if I’m in a hurry or I want their fantastic orange chicken, which isn’t a lunch-combo item at most Conspiracy fronts; Double Dragon for pretty much anything else. So I haven’t actually looked at the menu in China One closely for years.

This visit gave me two valuable pieces of news: first, China One has left the conspiracy, at least to some extent! They have their own menu now, one in which chow mein, with any of four different proteins, is item L1 or L2. One with Mongolian Beef and Coconut Shrimp on the lunch menu. They always had Orange Chicken, making them a little unusual, but they’ve completely revamped and seem to really be going their own way. The other notable piece of news is that China One has really gotten quite good (either that or Double Dragon got subtly worse while I wasn’t looking). Even their eggrolls are better, which flummoxes me because I’m quite positive they come frozen off the back of the same Sysco truck. And yet China One’s are so much more pleasant, with a lighter filling, a more delicate crunch, and detectable morsels of ground meat. Maybe Sysco has multiple grades of eggrolls, and DD is ordering the budget version and C1 the premium. Or maybe DD only does vegetarian rolls while C1 gets meaty ones and the nonvegetarian rolls are just better crafted. And maybe they have different egg-roll-frying practices. Either way, they’re different, and China One is better.

The main course also varies, but I’ll get to that below.

Shrimp Chow Mein

Astute observers might notice the wood-grain of a different table than usual.

What exactly is this dish? “Chow mein” is a peculiarly variable term in American cuisine, describing a number of different dishes, most of which are preparation-style and noodle-choice variations on a stir-fried formula akin to a crispier version of lo mein. In several parts of the Midwest, however, “chow mein” is basically what is elsewhere called “chop suey” served with the crispy noodles which are a typical accompaniment to soup. This particular dish appears to be sliced chicken and veggies, particularly large pieces of cabbage, in a white sauce.

How authentically Chinese is it? In this particular incarnation? Not very. Not very Chinese at all. It might be the least authentically Chinese thing you can get at your average Chinese-American restaurant. The name 炒面 is authentically Chinese, apparently from the Taishanese dialect, and some dishes which share this name might have more authentically Chinese roots, but I’m answering the question for this specific variant.

Is it any good? Like its brother at Double Dragon, not very. Even here, it’s ridiculously bland, although it seems like China One maybe uses a more onion-intensive (or garlicky?) sauce which makes it a mite more worthwhile, and the big chunks-o-cabbage are texturally a bit overwhelming. Shrimp feels like it plays a bit better with the dish overall, although still not well enough to actually ennoble it; basically you have to close your eyes and think of Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, and by the time you’re doing that, you might as well have ordered good old L2 to begin with. The soup noodles are frankly a bit confusing: am I meant to put them in the sauce, where they lose a bit of their crunch, not unlike one does with soup? They certainly aren’ adding a lot to this particular dish, and given that “crispy noodles” are the namesake feature of chow mein, I’d expect them to play a more vital role than this sad little packet of soup noodles does.

How does it complement the rice? Well enough; the sauce is plentiful, thick, and velvety, even if it is bland.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L11: Chicken Chow Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Still on backlog; anticipate a cavalcade of posts at some point, now that the semester’s over.

Chicken Chow Mein

I needed a wider angle to capture the noodles, so this is one of the rare portrait-orientation photos.

What exactly is this dish? “Chow mein” is a peculiarly variable term in American cuisine, describing a number of different dishes, most of which are preparation-style and noodle-choice variations on a stir-fried formula akin to a crispier version of lo mein. In several parts of the Midwest, however, “chow mein” is basically what is elsewhere called “chop suey” served with the crispy noodles which are a typical accompaniment to soup. This particular dish appears to be sliced chicken and veggies, particularly large pieces of cabbage, in a white sauce.

How authentically Chinese is it? In this particular incarnation? Not very. Not very Chinese at all. It might be the least authentically Chinese thing you can get at your average Chinese-American restaurant. The name 炒面 is authentically Chinese, apparently from the Taishanese dialect, and some dishes which share this name might have more authentically Chinese roots, but I’m answering the question for this specific variant.

Is it any good? Eh, not very. It’s ridiculously bland, and the big chunks-o-cabbage are texturally a bit overwhelming. The soup noodles are frankly a bit confusing: am I meant to put them in the sauce, where they lose a bit of their crunch, not unlike one does with soup? They certainly aren’ adding a lot to this particular dish, and given that “crispy noodles” are the namesake feature of chow mein, I’d expect them to play a more vital role than this sad little packet of soup noodles does.

How does it complement the rice? Well enough; the sauce is plentiful, thick, and velvety, even if it is bland.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L10: Moo goo gai pan

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

A backlog item that’s not just a retread with a new protein! Shame it’s still a brown-sauce creation.

Moo Goo Gai Pan

Almost all Chinese-American dishes have some English in their names. This one doesn’t.

What exactly is this dish? The literal translation of its name is “button mushrooms and sliced chicken”. That’s basically truth in advertising. Breast-meat chicken slices and mushrooms do form the core of this dish, which in this particular incarnation also includes carrots, fairly large chunks of cabbage, water chestnuts, and snow peas. The sauce ranges from a brownish soy base to a soyless white sauce; this one is on the whiter end of the spectrum, without much of a soy contribution and very light ginger flavor.

How authentically Chinese is it? Its actual Chinese origins are murky; the name 蘑菇雞片 is authentically Cantonese, but given that Chinese-American cuisine was pioneered by people whose first language was Cantonese, that proves nothing about its origins except that it wasn’t made up out of whole cloth by white Americans or by third-generation immigrants (neither of which tend to be popular theories for any Chinese food, really). The sauce is milder and a lot less soy-driven than I would expect from a Chinese dish aiming at this particular combination of meat and vegetables, and on that point, most of the additional vegetables would probably not have been present in an authentically Chinese dish, because traditional stirfries don’t as a rule go for a wide variety of vegetables within a single dish. Bottom line: if there is a traditional Chinese dish which shares this one’s name or its namesake ingredients, it is probably a very different preparation.

Is it any good? Meh, bland. Unless you really like mushrooms or really dislike soy (neither of which I particularly do), this honestly seems to be aiming at the same place as Chicken with Mixed Vegetable and falling short in almost every regard.

How does it complement the rice? There was for sure some quantity of sauce, and a very light cornstarch thickness to keep it from just running to the bottom of the container, and it was flavorful enough to provide something of an interesting accent to the rice, so, all in all, it’s a success on the “good with rice” front

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L9: Mixed Vegetables

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

This one is also ripped off mostly from my writeup of L5. I approached this one with trepidation because the idea of having another brown-sauce stirfry with no protein at all was kind of dispiriting, but, surprise! It had tofu to hang my hopes and dreams on!

Mixed Vegetables

Unlike Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable and Chicken with Mixed Vegetable, this one contains at least two vegetables which are mixed, what with being a plural and all.

What exactly is this dish? Lightly seared tofu in the usual brown sauce with a number of vegetables which might vary depending on what’s in stock; this particular incarnation has mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, cabbage, and bamboo shoots. This is a completely different veggie mix from both the chicken and shrimp mixed vegetable dishes, lending weight to the theory that “mixed vegetable” is an arbitrary potluck selection which changes regularly. There might be onion in there too, but if so it’s minced pretty fine.

How authentically Chinese is it? Much like beef with broccoli, this is a straightforward enough presentation I find it hard to imagine it’s not vaguely similar to some food eaten in China. The protein, vegetables, sauce, and cooking method are all pretty standard parts of the Chinese culinary toolset. I doubt I could match it onto a specific traditional food, because it seems like it’s of a piece with the standard “throw lots of stuff together according to a traditional cooking method” approach to non-fancy food that every cuisine has. I’d venture the Chinese version has a more flavorful sauce, probably with more ginger and garlic. Also, the Chinese are apparently not that big on dishes with a large variety of different vegetables, so a more traditional preparation would likely be pared down to a smaller selection of veggies. Seared is definitely a valid way to prepare tofu, for what it’s worth.

Is it any good? Much like the other mixed-vegetable dishess, it kind of hits a minimal interest level of having essential Chinese flavors without actually being distinguished enough to be a memorable experience in any way. I might’ve preferred a slightly crispier sear on the tofu, but I basically feel that anything less than a crunchy exterior on tofu tends to constitute wasted potential (I’ll make an exception for mapo doufu, which is supposed to have a soft soupiness). It’s an OK blend of textures and flavors although for my own personal tastes I would probably swap the mushrooms out for cabbage or something. I probably wouldn’t select this over the chicken or shrimp, but as a vegetarian offering it’s a pretty good incarnation of the form.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce was moderately moist; thinner than the chicken variant, maybe a bit thicker than with the shrimp? It didn’t quite stretch to flavor all of the rice, but it certainly kept eating the rice from being a dry slog.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L8: Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable [sic]

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Working through backlog again, this time with a few retreads; this one has text stolen shamelessly from L5, since it differs mostly in choice of protein.

Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable

It’s not unlike the chicken with mixed vegetable, but inexplicably shrimpier.

What exactly is this dish? Medium-size shrimp in the usual brown sauce with a number of vegetables which might vary depending on what’s in stock; this particular incarnation has mushrooms, snow peas, broccoli, baby corn, and bamboo shoots. This is a completely different veggie mix from its chicken-based cousin which I had weeks prior; it’s not clear whether the change is a difference between veggies chosen to complement different proteins or an arbitrary potluck selection which changes regularly. There might be onion in there too, but if so it’s minced pretty fine.

How authentically Chinese is it? Much like beef with broccoli, this is a straightforward enough presentation I find it hard to imagine it’s not vaguely similar to some food eaten in China. The protein, vegetables, sauce, and cooking method are all pretty standard parts of the Chinese culinary toolset. I doubt I could match it onto a specific traditional food, because it seems like it’s of a piece with the standard “throw lots of stuff together according to a traditional cooking method” approach to non-fancy food that every cuisine has. I’d venture the Chinese version has a more flavorful sauce, probably with more ginger and garlic. Also, the Chinese are apparently not that big on dishes with a large variety of different vegetables, so a more traditional preparation would likely be pared down to a smaller selection of veggies.

Is it any good? Much like beef with broccoli, it kind of hits a minimal interest level of having essential Chinese flavors without actually being distinguished enough to be a memorable experience in any way. The mshrooms don’t much do it for me, but I do like snow peas. It’s an OK blend of textures and flavors although for my own personal tastes I would probably swap the mushrooms out for cabbage or something. Shrimp is less bland than chicken, so I have a slight preference for this dish over its chickeny cousin on that front.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce was moderately moist; I think shrimp tend to sweat out a bit. I think it might have been a bit thinner than the sauce on the chicken with mixed vegetable. It didn’t quite stretch to flavor all of the rice, but it certainly kept eating the rice from being a dry slog.