Exploring the Conspiracy, item L14c: Shrimp Lo Mein

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

Sick of lo mein yet? I konw I am! Shrimp lo mein is a lot like any other sort and the comments are mostly the same. But for a change of pace, I went to Double Dragon 2, the Germantown Square restaurant’s evil twin down south of campus. Rumor had it that DD2 was the institution responsible for Double Dragon’s signage disclaiming any affiliation with other restaurants of that name. Anyways, long story short, this is from a different place with a somewhat worse reputation, where the combos are a little pricier, and instead of coming with an egg roll, come with a soft drink and a crab rangoon.

Shrimp Lo Mein

In the interest of fully documenting the adventure to a new place, I put the crab rangoon up in the top center. The soft drink is not pictured.

What exactly is this dish? Small shrimp 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 Cantonese 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 shrimp certainly has a toothsome texture and a reasonably strong flavor, it also tends to be used more sparingly than other proteins and, in this particular setting, is swamped entirely by the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with only moderate 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. In considering this particular incarnation of the dish, it’s worthwhile noting the differences from the more familiar Double Dragon (1) presentation: the rangoon, to my eyes, is a less pleasing appetizer than an egg roll, but opinions may differ there; more substantively, the fried rice had bits of either raw or undercooked onion in it, which still had crunch and the sharp raw-onion flavor. In this particular pile of indifference, that sharp flavor and crunch was somewhat welcome, but it’s still a bit irregular and unnerving.

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 L14b: Beef Lo Mein

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

Unsurprisingly, beef lo mein is pretty similar to chicken lo mein and most of the comments below are the same as those for the chicken.

Beef Lo Mein

Yup, looks a lot like any other lo mein.

What exactly is this dish? Strips of beef 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 Cantonese 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 giving credit where it’s due, the beef is less aggressively bland in texture or flavor than the chicken. Nonetheless, here 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 only moderate 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.

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.

Escaping the Conspiracy, item L14*/L11c: Pork Lo Mein

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

Because lo mein has variants which change the protein but nothing else, I took the opportunity to see how it’s done places other than Double Dragon. I started with China One, which isn’t even part of the Menu Conspiracy; in doing so I accidentally stumbled into the mistake of ordering a non-conspiracy variant, the roast pork lo mein.

Pork Lo Mein

Well, it looks a little more promising than the chicken lo mein. More color, anyways.

What exactly is this dish? Sliced roast pork 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 Cantonese 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? I think China One maybe does a better, more flavorful noodle than Double Dragon, there’s a bit more vegetable, ad roast pork is one of the more flavorful and enjoyable proteins. that said, most of the criticisms of the chicken lo mein still apply: in the form of a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), noodles with a side of rice is just too 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.

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.

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.

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.