One of the hard things about growing up is that sometimes traditions go away. For as long as I can remember, my family and I have always celebrated Chinese New Year at home.
My mom’s feast – typically featuring eight to 12 authentic Chinese dishes, including roast duck, noodles, seafood and more – might not be served on the actual day of Chinese New Year, but as close as our family could make it.
This year, the calendars just didn’t match up. Work schedules and other events caused us to strike one date, then another. And on the actual date of Chinese New Year, I was feeling depressed as we walked out of church. Until our friend Brett called out, “Hey, want to get some lunch?”
His wife, Grace, who is also Asian, was traveling, and like me, Brett might have been feeling nostalgic for some Chinese food. Nothing can really compare with my mom’s home cooking, so instead of trying, we decided to hit Eggroll Express West in Evans, just a few miles from church and not very busy at 11 on a Sunday morning.
When you go for Chinese lunch, it’s all about the combos – which at Eggroll Express include an entree, white or fried rice, two chicken wings and an eggroll (naturally), for $6.50. I almost always order shrimp with lobster sauce, a classic dish with a savory translucent white sauce streaked with egg, pork and green onions.
I’ve talked before about how Chinese restaurants tend to fall into four categories: Americanized, upscale fusion, mall Asian and Asian buffet. I was totally expecting Americanized at Eggroll Express. It met my expectations, but is probably one of the best renditions of Americanized Chinese that I’ve had in a while.
The shrimp in my dish were actually large, plump and flavorful; the pork wasn’t small bits of ground pork, but slices of meat; and it had a good seafood flavor – no extra salt required.
With it, the slightly greasy fried rice was satisfying, and the gingery wings picked up similar flavors in the sauce. The eggrolls were surprising – stuffed fat with cabbage and pork (again, pretty meaty) and distinctly peppery. Not everyone might like them, but my eggroll-loving husband was crazy about them.
As we ate, the Millers – Brett, his daughter Paige, and his mom, Susan – were chatting about dinner plans.
Paige turned to us with big eyes, and asked, “Do you want to come with us to Shangri-La tonight?”
It’s hard to say no to those eyes, so “Asian dining – take two” took place a few hours later at Shangri-La Chinese Cuisine on Washington Road (near Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill). This isn’t the Shangri-La buffet but the sit-down restaurant – much more formal.
On that night, it was packed. The restaurant had invited Chinese lion dancers to perform, and the troop was already practicing in the parking lot. While we waited, they danced in to the steady, heart-pounding beat of a drum, the magnificent lion’s head blinking and tossing in rhythm and in flashes of scarlet red, golden fringe and green and blue silks.
One of my brothers and my mom were able to join us, and it was fun to see my mom’s reaction to Shangri-La’s very pretty, stylized dishes – so different from her hearty displays of food.
The restaurant falls firmly into the upscale fusion category – or so I thought.
Brett, who’d been at Shangri-La for other Chinese New Years, gave a whisper and a nod to the waiter, who brought out an authentic dish not on Shangri-La’s menu.
Called yee sang, it was a mixture of pickled Chinese and other vegetables, fried wonton strips, carrots, peanuts, grapefruit and cilantro. This arranged Chinese “salad” is meant to be tossed with chopsticks by the entire table, while chanting “lo hei,” which means “to rise,” symbolizing prosperity.
My mom had never heard of this tradition, which wasn’t surprising once I’d researched it. It turned out it was a fairly new – and fun – New Year’s tradition, created by a Chinese chef in the 1960s. It was pleasingly crisp and crunchy, with strong flavors from the pickled vegetables and the grapefruit, and very refreshing.
It was a good starter for our entrees, which were marked by a similar freshness. My crispy shrimp and scallops were breaded and fried seafood bathed in a sweet, gingery and spicy sauce that clung to each bite. The sweetness was cut by a pile of bright green broccoli florets and a tangle of shredded carrot.
Sean’s sea bass didn’t look anything like my mom’s whole fish, which she steams with ginger and green onion, then dresses with soy and sizzling hot oil. The restaurant version was more elegant, a filet of meltingly tender white fish on a bed of fresh bok choy. Enjoyable, but tasting very light compared to my mom’s more robust dish.
After that night, my mom was inspired to look again at all our calendars and pin down a date for our traditional New Year’s dinner.
Maybe it was a little bit of competition – but as much as I enjoyed our daylong celebration of Chinese cuisine, I have to say that my mom has nothing to worry about.