Yea's Wok Feels Like the First Time

A Mandarin menu mystery in Newcastle.

Close your eyes and think about the first time you ate Chinese food. Try to envision the place, the menu, the smell, and the alien feel of the words in your mouth as you first said lo mein and moo shu and wonton. For most of us, Chinese food has been a staple for so long that all the uniqueness and thrill of discovery has been leached out of it. Chinese food—by which I mostly mean Americanized Chinese food—is like Italian or Mexican food now. It is one of the American mother cuisines—the broad, strong, deep bases from which all our daily foods sprang. But still, unless you grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, there was a time when it was new for you—when going out for Chinese was something special. So think hard. Picture the place in your mind. If you can, recall what you first ate and why you chose it. For me, the first place was Ng's in Rochester, New York. It was in a strip mall, tucked away in the back of a shopping plaza, with a big sign and huge double front doors. I remember it being dimly lit and smelling of hot oil, things frying, vinegar, and industrial cleaning products. The menus were big things, cloth-bound and tasseled. When plates were brought to the tables, they always came under silver, domed cloches which when lifted would belch forth clouds of steam like miniature Hiroshimas. I certainly remember what I ordered and why: shrimp with lobster sauce, because it sounded like the richest, most luxurious thing I had ever heard of. On every birthday, my parents would allow my brother or me to choose where to eat one special dinner. And while my brother was varied in his tastes, sometimes going for some steakhouse or seafood restaurant and occasionally wasting his pick on McDonald's, I always chose Ng's, and always ordered the same thing. Ng's was amazing to me, so different than the meat-and-potatoes daily dinners of my blue-collar youth. I loved the fluffy mountains of white rice and the polished tables, the ancient waiters in their white tuxedo shirts and the wild tangles of noodles. I loved the anticipation—thinking about going for days beforehand, then actually being there, flipping through the menu and puzzling over the chow meins and bright red slabs of barbecued pork as though I might possibly choose anything but the shrimp in lobster sauce. The best thing about Ng's to a kid like me? The menu was full of pictures. I'm guessing most of you had your first hit of Chinese food under similar circumstances. Not the birthday dinner and the strip mall, necessarily, but the menu with pictures. Back in the day when even sweet-and-sour pork was groundbreaking to waddling pink suburbanites, the picture menu must've saved Chinese-restaurant owners oceans of time. They wouldn't have to answer a hundred questions. They could just point to the picture and say "What you see is what you get." I have spent the balance of my life chasing that first powerful charge of weirdness and excitement that came from my first trip to Ng's. Like a coke fiend always running after the sweet jolt of that first, best high, I have dedicated years and considerable fortunes to hunting that same thrill. I have insinuated myself into Chinese New Year parties to eat cold jellyfish and fried pig's ear, sat in huge groups at loud dim sum restaurants shouting for the cart ladies to bring the taro cakes and sticky rice, and have lifted bowls of shark fin soup to my lips to see what all the fuss is about (I still don't get it). I've eaten unidentifiable bits of grilled chicken in basement bars and chased chefs from town to town just to eat their duck. But the best, most dependable way to find that pure kick of novelty is the quote/unquote secret menu—the ones written in some native language which hostesses keep tucked behind counters, the Chinese menus full of Chinese flavors and Chinese favorites handed down only to Chinese guests. Yea's Wok in Newcastle has one of those menus. My first time at Yea's, it was loud and crowded, with a full floor, people pressing in right behind me, and more people loitering on the sidewalk. The restaurant is big and boxy—a series of interconnected square rooms, some set with small tables, some with huge ones. The waitresses moved like butterflies, zipping through the crowds, alighting here to drop off plates, there to deliver a check. Everywhere, tables groaned under mountains of food, almost bowing under the weight of platters and bowls all mounded with more than the people sitting before them could possibly eat. The scrum around the hostess stand was rough—all elbows and shoulders. I fought my way forward, got the attention of one of the women trying to sort the flood coming from the flood going, and asked if I could do takeout. She nodded, pressed a menu into my hand, turned away, then stopped and turned back. "Wait," she said, reaching out. "That's not for you. You won't like that." And she took the paper menu out of my hand, replacing it with a different one. "Chinese menu," she explained, putting the first one back on a stack near the register. And that was it. I was hooked, just imagining what kind of delights waited inside that little fold of green paper. First time through, I ordered off the American menu: barbecued pork and pot stickers, chicken chow mein (the noodles soft and twirled like a nest), and teriyaki beef of which I expected little but was pleasantly surprised. The kitchen had made a bowl of foil and dumped into it big, tender chunks of beef, slathered in a pleasantly complex, sweet-hot, and savory sauce rich with sugar, red chili flakes, and sesame seeds. It was all perfectly decent American-Chinese food, with the beef being addictively good. Back at home, I restrained myself from licking the foil, but just barely. And sitting on the couch, I reached into my pocket for the Chinese menu that I'd lifted from behind the counter when the hostess' attention was elsewhere. There are Chinese menus and there are Chinese menus. Sometimes—especially when there are pictures—one can puzzle out what is being offered, compare it to the English menu, and try to get the dishes to line up. And sometimes there are brief descriptions in English—especially when it's not a real secret Chinese menu. But at Yea's, faced with columns of Mandarin, no pictures, no symbols, and no descriptions of any kind that I could read without a year's study, a private tutor, or a friend who could speak Chinese, I was flummoxed. All I could do was imagine what Yea's Chinese customers were eating, and the more frustrated I got, the wilder my flights of fancy became. I stared at the Chinese menu for way too long, trying to will myself into being able to read the tiny, lovely script, but to no avail. Spanish I can handle. French, too. Even some Vietnamese I can recognize, like that chimp who learned sign language—years of repetition making me familiar with the shapes of certain words and letters. But Chinese was beyond me. I went back to Yea's, sat in the front dining room, and ate crispy chicken on the bone, doused in garlic sauce. I loaded down my table with fried prawns which might as well have come off the appetizer menu at Outback Steakhouse; egg rolls filled with cabbage and chunky ground pork that tasted like the egg rolls I remembered eating back when the egg roll was still a unique thing; and, of course, shrimp with lobster sauce. It wasn't as good as the stuff I recalled eating at Ng's, but only because nothing ever could be. Sitting there, I thought about playing the frustrated gourmand's version of "Hey, buddy"—leaning over to the tables around me and asking "Hey, buddy, what's that you're eating?" But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I ate at Yea's four or five times, hoping I would find some solution to my own personal omnivore's dilemma: I wanted to eat everything, but simply did not have the words to speak my desires. Until last week. The solution, when it came to me, was almost ridiculously simple. Yea's has a website, and that website allows for online ordering. The Chinese menu? It's right there on the page, all written in Chinese characters that my computer won't even recognize, let alone attempt to translate. But you know what else the online menu has? Pictures—of bright pink shrimp nestled among curls of tripe, asparagus in a spicy sauce with chunks of green onion, and mounds of straw mushrooms and maybe bamboo shoots, or seared tofu twined around whole little fish with their eyes whited out from the heat of the wok. For just $5, I got a plate of seaweed, which, from the picture, I thought was something else entirely. As far as seaweed goes, I guess it was good—twined with carrots and tasting vaguely of brine—but I wouldn't rush right back for it. The beef with Chinese basil, on the other hand, came to me in a delicate, thin broth of cumin and chile flakes, beef stock, and hot oil that beaded up on the surface like tiny flecks of ruby. It was delicious—not at all what I thought I was ordering, but a surprise, like stripping away decades of habit and Chinese-food insouciance. I try to make an order over the phone a couple days later, calling at a quiet hour—which at Yea's is still louder than most restaurants' busiest—and talking with the woman who picks up the phone. She is nice, patient and understanding when I tell her that I want to order some things off the Chinese menu. "Because there are pictures, yes?" she asks. "Because there are pictures, yes," I concur. I ask for the thing that looks like fried duck with the little shrimp puffs on top, and she tells me that's actually fried chicken, but I order it anyway. We go back and forth for a good five minutes over a beef dish—she offering beef with Chinese vegetables, broccoli with beef, beef with ginger, and beef with basil. I ask for something that looks like sticks of beef jerky topped with a crown of greenery, and she seems to know what I'm talking about. When I ask her what her favorite thing on the Chinese menu is, she asks me what I like and I tell her I like almost everything, but what I want to know is what she likes. "You like bean curd?" "I do like bean curd." "Bean curd with pork?" "I do also like pork." "That, then." "OK." I pick it up and rush it home. It's like Christmas morning—after all the back-and-forth, I have no idea what I actually ended up ordering. When I start opening boxes, I see that after all our arguing about the beef, what we ended up settling on was the beef with Chinese basil again, which is fine—I'd liked it the first time and I like it again. The bean curd with pork is wonderful, coming as a huge mound of sliced tofu sticks that have absorbed the flavor of the black-bean sauce like a hundred narrow sponges, the whole plate threaded through with bits of pork and onions fried until they're almost invisible. Finally, the fried chicken: It is all golden-brown and crispy skin, with tender, juicy meat. The only things that would make it seem out of place in any soul-food restaurant are the method of its dismemberment (a giant cleaver, by the look of it); the rainbow-colored shrimp puffs that smell vaguely of fish food and taste like Styrofoam packing peanuts (which doesn't stop me from eating them all); and the fact that my chicken appears to have had three legs. I love it. And I love it even more for the ridiculousness of it—of all the multilingual effort I had to go through to get what is basically just a plate of really good fried chicken, as American as anything. Price Guide Fried prawns $7.95 Egg rolls $3.95 Beef with basil $11.25 Shrimp in lobster sauce $11.95 Teriyaki beef $10.95 Pork with black-bean sauce $10.95 Fried chicken $11.50  

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