Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sun-Wah: A Taste of Beijing

On the previous weekend the Electrician had invited me out for a dinner at Sun-wah.

“The duck is amazing.”

So, to Sun-wah we would go. Sadly when I got there I soon realized why the duck was amazing and how impossible dinner was going to be. Sun-wah was packed. The place seated 250 people and it had 250 people seated with a line out the door of eager people waiting to get in to eat Beijing-cafeteria style. The place smelled like a cafeteria in Beijing, in fact, and sounded the same. I managed to push through the line to get close enough to the front to put names on the list for dinner, and was told it was an hour wait.

I sent a couple of texts and waited while dinner was rearranged to the more traditional-meet and-greet location. While waiting for a ride I stood and watched as the Chinese chefs pulled roast chicken, pork ribs, and duck down off the hangers from the Chinese-style meat cabinet. They would put the meat out over the chopping block, and expertly, with a large sharp butcher knife, neatly cut through meat and bone. In quick precise movements they would turn a whole chicken into bite-sized bits, ready to go to a table.

I had to eat at this place.

Arrangements were made and the Electrician put in reservations to make getting a table a bit easier and on Rapture Day, I planned to have dinner at Sun-wah.

The Rapture came and went, the only signs of impending doom a game played to the delight of children on the streets. At 7:30 my phone informed me that my ride had arrived and I was off for some eating at Sun-wah.

This time pushing to the front of the line took a few extra minutes. There were several parties there and one very loud and belligerent woman was trying hard to push herself into and her party in. She got snippy when we informed the hostess we were here for the 8:00 reservation. She was still throwing a tantrum when we were escorted to our table. At the table we were given hot tea and menus that were like short Chinese novels. On one side there were regular Chinese dishes, that all reminded me of eating in Beijing or Shanghai. On the other side were the roasted meats. Orders were placed for Peking duck, soy-baked chicken, and fried scallops among other things. The duck, we were informed, would also come with soup and rice.

The place was bustling, that happy Asian-type bustle that I think of whenever eating in busy public places. In Korea, all the Costcos have a kitchen where you can eat. The Koreans will pile in on top of each other to eat the “American” delicacies that are served by the kitchen, which include pizza, meat-top breaded roll things, and hot dogs. It is always busy, and always impossible to find a seat. Sun-wah reminded me of that kind of busy push and shuffle.

The smells were absolutely exquisitely Beijing. The sensory memory of smelling places to eat in China sticks with you for years afterward, so that in any situation in which your olfactory system has an opportunity to encounter it you know immediately that you are in China. As far as my nose was concerned we had just landed in a cafeteria in the Pearl Street market and it was hungry for some eating. It took twenty minutes to finally manage to wrangle a waitperson, and the entire time I had to bite down my Korean-born desire to shout “Yogiyo.” They really need to install buttons, was the other thing I was thinking (the buttons sit on tables and you push them in busy Korean restaurants to let people know you are ready to eat).

Shortly after placing orders, though, we were greeted with soy-roasted chicken. I happily broke into chopsticks and went for it. Juicy was the first thing that came to mind. The next thing that came to mind was Oh my foodgasam. My tongue divorced itself from all my other senses to take a moment of pure and utterly decadent ecstasy that was the roast meat at Sun-wah. Chicken got two thumbs up. A short while later the scallops came, along with some nice dipping sauces, and then the roast duck showed up at the table.

The duck came with a server, who deftly took her large butcher knife and began to carve the bird up as we watched. One has to appreciate the skill demonstrated when someone managed to wield a three-pound steel butcher knife and make it look as if it was an instrument of laser precision while carving up a somewhat difficult bird. She knew exactly what she was doing, and in short order she had carved the meat up and placed it on a plate to serve. Then she wheeled the carcass away. The rest of the meat was carved off the carcass somewhere in a kitchen to be made into soup and fried rice.

The duck was good.

The duck was what one would imagine ambrosia would taste like. The melt-in-your-mouth quality of superbly seasoned and carefully prepared food. It was fabulousness on the end of chopsticks. The soup was actually pretty accurate for a Chinese broth-based soup. It was heavy and had a rich meaty broth and obvious eggs. The heaviness gives it a slightly greasy texture that, while being very authentic, was also not something I really enjoyed. I recalled this from when I was eating something similar in China and it caused sudden allergic issues; this being the case I only had a spoonful. I tasted the rice, but since I don’t eat rice I am not the best critic. The fried scallops, I will mention, were more Sino-American than authentic Chinese; good but heavy on the breading and grease and I would not probably have fried food there again.

We enjoyed sitting and polishing off as much as could possibly be stuffed into our faces before deciding it was time to adjourn, take trips to the washroom, and head on to future destinations.

When I got back to the table to get my things, I smiled at the elderly quartet that was sitting next to us. There was a classy older woman there who reminded me of Gilda Radner, with cute, curly and fluffy white hair, thick red lipstick, and an elegant velvet-and-lace blouse. Their group had also ordered the duck. She leaned over to me and asked me what I thought.

“Lovely, as good as anything I’ve had in Beijing or Shanghai.” I responded.

“You know, when they finished carving up that bird I wondered what they were going to do with the carcass.” She patted the table with her hands and shook her head. “And I said to that young lady, I said, ‘what are you going to do with the carcass? Are you going to leave it here for use to suck on it?’” She shook her head again and looked at me, pointing her finger. “And that young girl she says to me, she says, ‘if you suck on the carcass then you won’t get any rice or soup.’ And then she took that carcass away. But I tell you, now that I know, the next time I’m going to tell them to leave the carcass so we can just suck on those bones.” And she smacked the table again for emphasis. She was adorable and I wanted to take her home with me.

I laughed and agreed that the bird was definitely better than the soup or the fried rice. She told the friend next to her that I had been to China, and we took a few minutes to talk before I disappeared into the warmish spring night full of food, amusement, and a host of memories; a sense of the passage of time released by the scent of a place and memories of a lifetime overseas.


Doc Merrkin said...

excellent offering as always. It is claimed that the olfactory sense has the greatest connection to memory. I've always found that to be the truth.

I am disappointed that you are cheating with another electrician, though...

Saradevil said...

I promise, Doc, you'll always be my first Electrician. :)