Dim Sum on Sunday
I've been to China and I've been to many Chinatowns, but I know little about Dim Sum. My daughter picked this food feast for part of her Birthday Mother/Daughter Day!
What to Wear
The festive head gear was Heidi's idea. I was having a hard time trying to figure out what to wear that day and Heidi suggested head scarves.
You know you're going to have a good food outing when your daughter is up for head costumes!
It was a beautiful October day and we were able to walk from her apartment to the restaurant on the corner of the IBC Bank building.
There was a crowd dining on the patio and I could see full tables through the floor to ceiling windows.
We both were starving and glad we had reservations.
The sleek modern decor was a nice change. I'm used to waving kitty statues and fish aquariums and Chinese lanterns, so this was a treat. The host was friendly and ushered us past the jade colored community tables, towards the curtained wall in back.
Cool Austin Meets Traditional China
Heidi and I have been sharing Chinese food since she was small. She once burnt her tiny fingers on scalding crab rangoon. As a tot, she begged for her favorite, shrimp toast. At some point she carried her own traveling chopsticks in her purse.
Today Heidi still loves Chinese food, but she's got a sophisticated palate. I was ready for her to introduce me to one of Austin's most highly rated restaurants... where the Chinese chef uses local farm-fresh ingredients to prepare authentic Chinese dishes.
The crowd at Wu Chang looked very different from the diners in my Houston area. Houston's "Asia Town" caters to a mostly Asian crowd. Our go-to Panda Garden near Sugar Land gets an after church group, where you still see some suits and Sunday hats. This was a young Austin crowd, sporting fedoras and tattoos, drinking mimosas, instead of green tea.
But I was delighted with the change, because I knew I was going to have my first Shanghai Soup Dumpling Experience.
I kept the receipt to help me remember all our orders and of course I can't find it and I can't remember. But Heidi did most of the ordering and all we tasted was delicious. Most of these items are only available on Sundays, when Dim Sum Chef, Ji Peng Chen oversees the kitchen. Evidently all the pinching and folding of these little food packages is too time consuming to make them daily.
By the end I was finally growing full, but we had to sample the dessert, sesame fritters! It was a perfect ending. Much better than fortune cookies, which really aren't a Chinese thing anyway.
I took a few moments to head back towards the restroom, so I could enjoy the scenes along the way.
The bar was pretty empty by this time, but I could see the yellow tile work and the painted "fish scales" above the bar. I imagine at night, this cool scene is a happening place.
These fish greeted me when I walked into the Ladies Room. Wallpaper? I'm not sure, but it was lovely.
When I was a kid I rated bathrooms and I would have given this one an A+. They even had mouthwash available, which I've never seen in a Chinese restaurant.
The Best Wall
The place had emptied out by the time we finished, so I was able to get a look behind one large seating area. The whole wall was decorated with hand-laid mahjong tiles!
One server saw me gasping as I recognized what the tiny rectangles were. She told me the exact number of tiles that were used, but of course I can't remember. It made me want to go home and pull out my grandmother's old game... and do a little artwork!
On a Friday night last September, Don and I left our hotel in Uptown Butte in search of food.
We passed an upscale restaurant on Broadway, then headed past a noisy group of bikers holding beers. Then on a quieter corner, we spotted a welcoming neon sign with the words, Chop Suey!
Brick, Neon and Mountains
Actually, this is the neon image that first lured us to the corner.
We were headed literally down Main Street, just after the sun had set. There was a glow behind the mountains and a glow on the red brick building from the neon.
"What a sign!" was my first reaction.
It wasn't until we crossed the street that we could see the words "Noodle Parlors" glowing above the door. What does that even mean... parlors, as in more than one parlor?
We peered in and saw a staircase heading upward. It seemed lit up and open, but it still felt a bit daring. Then a young couple suddenly appeared. They headed in and confidently walked up. We waited a few minutes and then followed.
Up We Go
My camera flash made the stairway look a little brighter than it was. We headed up, kind of chuckling about our bravery.
We turned left into the doorway and found a decorated cashier's cage, with no one attending. Towards the front was an empty room, with community tables. Towards the rear, there was a long and curious hall.
We could hear diners behind the curtains and voices coming from the kitchen at the end of the hall. We had a few moments by ourselves, to absorb this mysterious sight.
There were Chinese lanterns and salmon-pink, bead board walls. There were curtains, that made me think of dressing rooms... and one, lone metal cart.
Our Cozy Booth
A woman with blond hair and glasses emerged from the end of the hall. She rolled the metal cart back into the kitchen, then ushered us to booth #8.
We sat at our cozy table in two wobbly soda fountain chairs, while she left us to fetch menus and tea. We sat there grinning, with raised eyebrows. "She didn't close our curtain. Are we supposed to?" It was like being in a foreign country, unsure of ourselves.
Retro Chinese Menu
The menu was hoot. There were serious reminders, written in red on the cover.
Inside the menu we found a stunning selection. There were 32 different kinds of Chop Suey and Chow Mein. We started with egg drop soup.
As we sat behind our closed curtain, I kept getting the giggles. Having our vision limited, made the nearby voices and sounds extra comical.
We could hear a family with a restless baby... clinking toasts of a romantic couple... a jabbering man monopolizing the conversation across the hall...... and every now and then the sound of a cart, rattling at great speeds down the hall... fluttering our curtain each time.
There was so darn much of it. We had Chicken Chop Suey with Noodles and Pork Choy Mein with Egg Fu Yong. This was food you can't find easily anymore, even if you live in Houston, with the largest "Asia-Town" in the States.
As for the flavors and textures and seasoning? It wasn't packed with any of that, but that's okay. It took me back to my earliest memory of Chinese food. I was 6 in 1963 when I remember eating food just like this in NYC's Chinatown. Ahhh. Simple is nice.
Since we had pulled our curtain closed, I did what I generally consider rude and grabbed my cell phone and googled the restaurant. I was stunned to learn we were in a restaurant that had been run by the same family since 1909. I was even more surprised to learn that the owner Danny Wong, (I believe his great uncle started the business) was 80 and still cooked six days a week. I was like a giddy groupie. I used the excuse of hunting down the restroom, to sneak a peek in the kitchen.
I nervously snapped a blurry photo, hoping no one would notice. I wish I had been brave enough to photograph the bathroom. There were two little saloon style doors (same salmon color) and another tiny door to the toilet. I grinned as I took a look. Then I washed my hands at a shared sink in the hallway .
When, we finished the feast our server Arlene, seemed surprised to know this was our first visit. (We must have hidden our confused expressions. ) She genuinely apologized, since she hadn't encouraged us to order their specialties.
Then she disappeared and returned with some samples of sweet and sour chicken and some kind of stuffed wontons. We nibbled the "just sweet enough" specialties, and learned more about Arlene and her work at Pekin. She was hired in 1979, back when the waitresses carried huge heavy trays in and out of those tiny rooms. After many years, they were finally allowed to use the rolling carts. "Oh Butte was different then." Arlene smiled. "It was pretty rough and tumble. Back then, we stayed open till 3 am. The bars closed at 2, so everyone headed here. It got pretty wild."
History of the Building
Arlene told us the building (which we viewed again in the morning) had been in the original Chinese District. The 2-block area was bustling during Butte's heyday in the late 1800's. The 2-story building was constructed in 1909. That year, Hum Yow and his wife Bessie Wong moved their noodle house and family to the upper level. The street level and basement housed a Chinese apothecary, a sign maker's shop and gambling casino.
Because the building was so near Butte's red-light district, there have been lots of rumors about those little curtained rooms where diners eat noodles, today. Arlene didn't say anything about the restaurant being a brothel, but she did say Chinese miners rented those tiny booths as sleeping quarters at one time. I'm sure Arlene could tell a lot of stories from her 36 years of work at The Pekin. I asked her if she'd noticed a lot of changes during that time. Arlene didn't really need to ponder that. "No. Not really.
Julie in the Lounge
After dinner, Don and I wandered towards the front of the building where we could see the neon, glowing through the window. We noticed a lounge off to the left.
We peeked in and ended up chatting with bartender, Julie. She had her own stories about the Noodle House. She talked about growing up in Butte (which she never fully respected until she moved away for a short while.) She had nothing but rave reviews of her boss, Mr. Wong. "He cooks 6 days a week!" Julie gushed. She said he was 80 years old and had enough money to retire and live comfortably anywhere, but he was so dedicated to the place.
Mr. Wong Himself
We'd been chatting with Julie for quite a while, when Mr. Wong himself strolled into the lounge in his white apron and tidy white hair.
I was star struck. He teased Julie a bit and seemed delighted that we had enjoyed our first visit to Pekin Noodle House. He was more than happy to pose for photos before heading back to the kitchen. Such a treat! What a sweet man and what a welcoming staff.
Good-Byes and Thanks
We headed out later that night. Two months later, I'm still pondering the visit. The history of Butte's Chinese community is fascinating. The fact that Danny Wong's family has run this business since 1909, says much about the Wongs.
At one time 400 to 600 Chinese rail workers, miners and later, service oriented business owners filled the 2-block Chinese community. For many complicated reasons, most of the Chinese businesses disappeared and yet this one still exists. I keep trying to learn more, but my Googling brings up conflicting stories and lots of odd food reviews. I may never know the full story of Pekin Noodle House and how it fit into this Montana world. But, I'm glad I experienced a piece of it!
40 minutes in Chinatown
We only had enough coins for 40 minutes in the parking meter.
But, Don and I were determined to enjoy a little Chinatown!
We searched quickly, for a place to enjoy at least a tiny adventure feast.
We found this old sign hanging above the door to Eastern Bakery. It is Chinatown's oldest sweet shop, open since 1924.
Fun, Cluttered Place
This tiny shop was cluttered with paper lanterns and overflowing shelves.
There were signs inviting us to read the Chinese newspapers and remind dress to not to take them.
There were signs proudly announcing President Clinton's visit to the bakery... back in 1997.
There was quite a selection of mooncakes. We had a sweet lotus mooncake, just like Clinton is eating in the photograph.
Our mooncake weighed a lot more than a Big Mac. Clinton has probably given up eating mooncakes along with Big Macs.
These sounded intriguing with sticky rice, Chinese sausage, salted duck egg and peanuts.
Plus it was wrapped up in such a fun package of bamboo leaves!
Our Treat Feast
We had just enough time for a little tamale and mooncake.
We sat in the back of the store and watched the lines of locals and tourists ordering, while we dug into our treats.
What's this expression?
Usually I would delete a photo like this, but the expression actually says a lot. The tamale was downright confusing. We both tried to be positive as we sampled a food we have never experienced.
It was a lot of work getting through the dense pocket of sticky rice. The little morsels of egg and sausage and nuts were hard to distinguish. It may take a couple more tries to become big fans.
Orlando was the good natured fellow who served us our tamale and mooncake. He eagerly shared a little history of the shop. Evidently Eastern Bakery is the only bakery in the States that has a machine for making the mooncakes from scratch. Hmm? Not sure about that.
We did however take his advice and ordered the lotus mooncake filled with a dense lotus-seed paste. If only the shop had been less busy on Saturday afternoon, we could have asked a lot more questions. Is that you in the photo with Clinton? How did you get your name? Can we see the machine that makes the mooncakes? Next time, maybe?
Happy Chinese New Year!
What better way to add China to the blog than with a feast, celebrating
the Year of the Dragon! Lilian, (seated far right) hosts a gathering of friends and family each year to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
This year Lilian picked Jasmine Asian Cafe on colorful Bellaire Blvd. for her feast. I've dined here before for Vietnamese food, but this was a distinctly Chinese spread of foods!
Food and Friends
This was a fun evening of food and friends, but in China we would celebrate much longer.
The Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the 15-day "Spring Celebration".
Celebrating Goes On
You don't have to go to Houston's "Chinatown" to get Chinese food.
This great little Hunan restaurant is a favorite on Eldridge. It's cozy for dining in, but we do carry outs frequently.
Pearls and Silk
And if you're going to have carry outs...
...then why not throw on some pearls and silk, to enjoy your Spicy Szechwan Shrimp, or Kung Pao Chicken?
The main reason for feasting during the Spring Festival is bringing families together. Our American Thanksgiving encourages families to come together, but not for 15 days!
My family has always loved Chinese dining, especially with a round table and shared dishes. Even on a visit to China, my kids got over the scary fish who stared up at them from the plate and the unknown soup ingredients.
Chinese New Year makes me miss my kids.
My mother was the one who made my kids giddy fans of Shrimp Toast and Crab Rangoon!
She took them to Hunan Garden in St. Louis, where the owner knew her by name. Sometimes she even followed the Chinese custom of giving children red envelopes with money tucked inside. So it's only fair that my mom would get to enjoy a little of her favorite food for the holiday!
A Great Thing I Learned...
Since I am no longer able to take my mom on outings, I decided to bring her a feast for the Chinese New Year. My mother's Alzheimer's may have affected her ability to walk and converse...but she can still eat a whole meal with chopsticks! Witnessing that was 15 days of FAMILY HAPPY rolled into one! Go Mom!
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.