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China Rose: The Occidental Tourist 

Get clued in to the 'Chinese menu" for a whole world of flavor beyond duck sauce

The writer Calvin Trillin once invited a professor of linguistics out to dinner as part of his campaign to penetrate Chinese-language restaurant menus in New York, which he was convinced held finer culinary delights than the standard fare presented for most non-Chinese patrons. Getting at the good stuff is quite a bit easier these days at China Rose, the restaurant that moved from Lakeview to a new location in Fat City after the flood. Just ask for the "Chinese menu," which includes convenient if sparse English translations of authentic, inexpensive and, in some cases, utterly exhilarating Chinese dishes. This menu is not explicitly advertised, but it's not exactly a secret either. The menus, trimmed in red rose graphics, are piled right next to the normal — let's say American — menus at the hostess stand. If you look around the dining room and spot patrons of evident Chinese ethnicity, they likely will be eating something visibly different from the familiar combo-plates and fried wonton fare the busy waitresses run out to most of the other tables.

How one kitchen can produce menus of such disparate cooking is beyond me, but I'd happily never eat another crab rangoon as long as the Chinese menu is available here. The techniques, the ingredients, the care in preparation — all are a world apart.

I was bowled over from the first salvo: "cucumber in minced garlic," an appetizer of cold Chinese cucumbers, cut into sticks and dressed with garlic, scallions and a dusting of peanuts crushed so finely I could hardly detect them except on the palate. Another must-try is the scallion pancake, which is flaky and oily like a piecrust.

Then there are the dumplings. For the sake of comparison, one afternoon I tried the dumplings on the regular menu, which proved bland and gluey. But the dumplings I ordered off the Chinese menu a few days later were divine. The steamed dumpling noodle itself was thin and practically al dente while the filling was a succulent, rust-colored ball of sausage and ginger.

From my neophyte's perspective on this cuisine, what really seems to work the magic are the different types of sauces and seasonings — stuff that rarely, if ever, makes it onto Americanized menus. For instance, what China Rose calls "tofu in home style" starts with familiar triangles of thin, fried tofu and bathes them in a fantastic, electric sauce made from fermented soy beans that seems to create a sudden chemical dependence that demands more of it.

Another example is "beef with wild and hot pepper." The adjectives here might sound like something was lost in translation, but they accurately describe two distinct forces at work: the hot peppers, which are thin, red, whole chiles distributed in a dark broth as liberally as shrimp in a gumbo; and the wild pepper, a softer, earthier, pungent relative of black pepper, which is ground in the same way and sprinkled on top of the meat and vegetables. I can only describe the effect as intoxicating. The flavors started pushing buttons in my brain. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face even as I grew flushed and felt my skin pulsing slightly, pleasantly. All this, and the strips of beef were meltingly tender.

One of the most strangely rewarding dishes I've tried is the Dongpo pork, a dish of slow-braised pork belly named, according to lore, for an 11th-century Chinese poet and gourmet who is said to have invented it. At China Rose, the serving is incredibly fatty, but somehow not greasy. It is so tender that chopsticks are all you need to pull it apart and extract the deeply pink strands of meat, should you wish to forego the mouth-flood of fat. The serving size is about equal to a typical slice of lasagna. There are plenty of restaurants around town that would serve a fraction of this portion for upwards of $30 with a few high-end accoutrements and a luxurious menu description. China Rose serves its Dongpo pork with baby bok choy in a salty, star anise broth for $11. That price also puts it among the more expensive dishes on the Chinese menu, where most dishes are below $10 and are large enough to share.

Menu descriptions are very short, and if a waitress warns you off a certain dish, you may want to follow her advice. I admit that the entrée of fried pork intestines was just not my speed, though maybe someone more into offal would find this crispy pile of salty entrails irresistible. I did not even attempt the braised duck feet.

The menu is huge, but it turns out there is yet a third menu — an even deeper plunge into Chinese specialization that lists only noodle dishes, like the springy, nutty, oily and riotously spicy dan-dan noodles with minced pork.

A few Chinese menu items make appearances on the mainstream menu, like the purple Chinese eggplant with pork in hot garlic sauce and the shredded catfish with sprouts and green beans. But even if you're not sold on the whole idea of the Chinese menu, at least do yourself a favor and order the dumplings from it.

click to enlarge "Beef with wild and hot pepper" is a specialty on China Rose's alternate Chinese menu for customers who prefer more authentic dishes. - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • "Beef with wild and hot pepper" is a specialty on China Rose's alternate Chinese menu for customers who prefer more authentic dishes.
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