I have a confession to make. A few days ago, I headed to Tony Hu's Lao Beijing in Chinatown with the sole purpose of ordering a plate of General Tsao's chicken.
On the one hand, heading to Chinatown, and especially to one of Tony Hu's much lauded restaurant concepts, to order a dish most commonly enjoyed in shopping mall food courts across middle America, seems to be missing the point. The dish in its present incarnation was designed for, promulgated by, and remains popular largely among Western diners, primarily because of its exotic-but-not-too-challenging nature. It is a dish reminiscent of the "flavors of the orient," bringing along with it all the negative cultural stereotype baggage associated with that phrase. Yeah, I Saïd it.
On the other hand, who am I as a food writer to feel qualified to enter into this conversation with even a semblance of credibility? Sure, I do way more research than reasonably expected before dining at ethnic restaurants. But as this essay on authenticity pointed out, it's difficult even for the actual experts to explain the nuances of cuisines across cultures to Westerners. Add terroir, slight regional preparation differences, and general lost-in-translation issues, and it seems rather elitist and narrow minded of food writers to scoff at such dishes, regardless of our well intentioned attempts at understanding the food we are eating.
We walk a delicate line in this regard: on one side is seeking out dishes the way they are intended to be enjoyed, respecting the cuisine and its preparers by encouraging them not to pander too much to our Western tastes. On the other side is our more general purpose as food enjoyers at large: to seek out and celebrate dishes that simply taste good.
Which brings us to Lao Beijing's General Tsao's Chicken ($10.95). The dish arrived to the table as I knew it would. Large, irregular chunks of breaded and fried chicken, barely charred green and red bell peppers, crunchy baby corn, and a few dried red chilies for good measure, all swimming in a viscous peppercorn specked brick red sauce. Spooned over the accompanying steamed rice, the dish was comforting in its familiarity, but self assured in its preparation.
This was no ordinary carry-out General Tsao's Chicken. The sauce was sweet but not cloying, spicy but not fiery or mouth numbing. The barely cooked vegetables added crunch and a slight bitterness that contrasted well with the gently flavored sauce. And the chicken was on point—moist and flavorful on the inside, with the breading still maintaining its crunch underneath all that sauce. This dish was hardly reinventing the wheel, but it was undoubtably the best version of General Tsao's Chicken I've ever had. And at the end of the day, isn't that really what all this is about?