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.

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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.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L7: Chicken with Garlic Sauce

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

Working through a backlog. Most of the backlog is going to be unexciting variants on things we’ve seen, but this one’s nice.

Chicken with Garlic Sauce

Garlic Sauce Graduating Class of 2016: mushroom, snow peas, carrot, broccoli, celery, water chestnut (not pictured)

What exactly is this dish? Sliced chicken with a variety of vegetables, in a rather peppy variation on brown sauce which, true to its name, has a good wallop of garlic as well as some other spices. It isn’t as fiery as the chili pepper on the menu suggests, but there’s a modest amount of pepper heat to it.

How authentically Chinese is it? It’s hard for me to say, really. This is a preparation enough beyond brown-sauce simplicity that I wouldn’t want to just shrug and say “it’s as much Chinese as it is any other culture’s” without evidence. nNd yet I haven’t found a definite original Chinese dish to point at and assert it’s the origin of this dish, but nor can I really shrug it off as a purely American innovation. It steers clear of any overtly non-Chinese ingredients or elements of preparation; I’ll give it that much.

Is it any good? I really liked it! Maybe I’m overexposed to boring brown sauces at this point, but the sauce really made this one feel fresh and bright and novel. The wide variety of veggies didn’t hurt either, providing a good spectrum of flavors and textures and colors. It basically has all the desirable qualities of Chicken with Mixed Vegetable in a far more satisfactory sauce.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce isn’t voluminous, possessing neither a cornstrarchy thickness or a large volume, so it saturates the rice lightly but thoroughly. And it’s a pretty assertive sauce, so this level of saucing on the rice endded up being just about perfect.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L6: Pepper Steak with Onion

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

Built up a backlog again! Sometimes it’s nice to get these out in a burst, with a bit of compare-and-contrast.

Pepper Steak with Onion

Larger chunks of stuff in here than you usually see in a stir-fry, mostly onion and green pepper.

What exactly is this dish? Sliced beef with large chunks of pepper and long slices of onion, in a slightly thick but otherwise generic brown sauce (soy sauce, ginger, maybe some garlic).

How authentically Chinese is it? “Meat and veggies in brown sauce” is, as I’ve mentioned before, a pretty straightforward and unimaginative presentation, and something along those lines with every possible combination of meat and veggie seems like it should pop up in Chinese cuisine somewhere. And, indeed, there’s a Fujianese dish which is the clear originator of this one, qing jiao rou si. There are several notable distinctions, though: traditional QJRS is made with pork (although that’s not obligatory; I found a recipe for it using chicken instead), the peppers are sliced thinner, and the sauce is much simpler, consisting of soy sauce with very little else (sometimes rice wine or a very little ginger). There’s no cornstarch, needless to say; the sauces thickened in that inimitably cornstarchy way that are a mainstay of Chinese-American cuisine are apparently much less common in actual Chinese cuisine. This is one of the few cases where the American dish is unambiguously more flavorful than its Chinese forbear: QJRS seems to depend on the green peppers to provide the dominant flavor component, which is why they need to be sliced thin, I think, since big chunks in the American style stirfried quick impart very little pepper flavor to the sauce.

Is it any good? It actually hits a more interesting note in some ways than the typical brown-sauce dish, probably because of all the onions. Wilt that much onion into a sauce, and it’s definitely going to add a sharp-edged note to the flavor. The texture, flavor , and color of the meat in mine made me halfway confinced they’d goofed and used pork instead of beef (which would actually make it more authentic, see above), but it was basically satisfactory.

How does it complement the rice? There’s sort of an oily sauce, lightly thickened by the cornstarch, which I think maybe had more volume than it might due to moisture from the onions. That all soaks into rice pretty well. There wasn’t quite enough of it to season my full half-carton of fried rice but it was at least a tasty sauce.