Friday, February 23, 2007

Chinese (?) Food

One of my life's great pleasures has also been one of my life's great frustrations. Once captivated by a memorable experience, I have been endlessly pursuing an amazingly elusive quality. Now and again I find it , in a different form, but the difference drives me onward through sloughs of ever deeper disappointment.

What did you think I was talking about? Pshaw! I'm only talking about Chinese food!

During my 2.5 year sojourn in Arizona, I experienced all three of the worst three Chinese restaurants I have ever visited. Possibly four. Maybe the amount of sunshine effects the recipes somehow. I really did despair of finding good Chinese cuisine.

Then I moved to St. Louis and immediately found good, then better, then even better...I don't dare say I've had the best. I'm still exulting in it and I haven't nearly reached the end. Plus, there are numerous Asian alternatives to spice up the experience - Vietnamese soups and soft spring rolls, Thai curries, Japanese sushi, that Indian place across the street from where I live, the Turkish cafe that actually has belly dancers two afternoons a week, and the Persian place I blogged about a while back, just for starters!

Dollar for drool, though, my favorite South St. Louis Chinese place is Old St. Louis Chop Suey on Chippewa, about a block east of Kingshighway. When I dine there I usually have something spicy, but tonight I decided to go in for a St. Louis cultural tradition: the St. Paul sandwich.

If you live in the United States, you probably eat something just about every day that owes its status as an American favorite to St. Louis. During the six-month 1904 World's Fair, an estimated 50% of the US population visited St. Louis and discovered, for the first time, things that, if they weren't exactly invented here, at least got their first nationwide notice here. New-fangled, weird things like Dr. Pepper, hot dogs, hamburgers, peanut butter, waffle ice cream cones, iced tea, cotton candy, and Aunt Jemima products. One could argue that all of these things are St. Louis's gift to the American pantry.

These days, however, St. Louis is known for about five culturally distinctive foods that are believed to have been invented here, and which are becoming more and more popular across the U.S. - but not sooner than St. Louis can stake a claim to them. For starters you can have toasted ravioli, once a coveted family recipe served in a handful of Italian restaurants on "the Hill," but now available off the appetizer menu at practically every restaurant in the St. Louis orbital system. This is basically a lightly battered, deep-fried ravioli, served with a side of marinara sauce for dipping. I suppose it must have been quite something when it was a family recipe, but now that anything goes, it tastes pretty much like any other tough, slightly cripsy hunk of pasta with a squirt of mystery meat in it.

For your main course there's "St. Louis style pizza," a crispy, thin-crust recipe with provel cheese on it, usually cut into squares. Where I came from this was called "toasted crackers and cheese," though if you've ever enjoyed the stretchy stringiness of mozzarella you may have trouble believing that this orange gook (a thin coat of red sauce combined with the melted provel) is really cheese.

For dessert there's either gooey butter cake, which is a really moist, high-fat sort of cross between a pound cake and a sour cream cruller; or a frozen custard "concrete," preferably purchased at Ted Drewes since the 1930's and still the most salivated-after St. Louis eating tradition. (They also sell the best Christmas trees in town.)

But if you don't care about quality at all, and you're just slavering for the tackiest, unhealthiest, weirdest comfort food in town, go to any Chinese restaurant and order a St. Paul Sandwich. Named after its inventor's native city (which tells you a bit about "how Chinese it is"), this guilty pleasure consists of a bun, or more likely two slices of soft white bread, smeared with mayonnaise, and stuffed with lettuce, pickle, and a crispy-fried egg foo young. I would say tasting is believing, but I've had two of them now and I'm still in disbelief. 20% of St. Louis' culinary fame rests on an egg sandwich with bean sprouts in it.

Oh, well. Our diet may be poor, but at least we have the World Series Champions.

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