Tuesday, April 21, 2015

China Dynasty and Dynamic Hot and Sour, 4.14.2015

After a grueling, ritualistic laying down of the numbers on my 1040 form last Tuesday afternoon, Art and I bounced around the corner from his house for some Chinese food at China Dynasty. It’s in the shopping center anchored by the HEB, on the northwest corner of Manchaca and Slaughter Lane. Here’s what makes the place so special: it’s an Americanized menu Chinese joint, but they know and respect the value of basing their sauces on a rich, well-prepared stock. Most lesser Chinese restaurants these days take the huge, flavorless shortcut of using their own version of the ubiquitous “brown sauce” as a soup base. It is basically watered-down soy sauce with some aromatics thrown in. Saltiness, sure. Depth and richness, definitely not. By contrast, Dynasty slow simmers big batches of chicken and pork stock until they are loaded with rich flavor, and those stocks are the base of every sauce and soup.

Hot and Sour....the real deal

The meal began with soup, with me getting a larger than normal portion of their hot and sour. Let me divert a bit from the script and yammer on about hot and sour soup in general. It hails from Sichuan province and is typically served as a mid-meal dish in a multi-course dinner, rather than as a starter, like it is in the West. Hot and sour soup in America has been in a serious quality decline for decades, and finding a good one these days is as rare as hen’s teeth. Back in the day, before hot and sour was added to the list of free soups given away with the daily lunch or dinner schedule, it was a separate menu item, almost always served in a big bowl meant to be shared between two or more. That meant that it was cooked-to-order by the chef, and not dipped out of a five gallon batch being held for hours on the steam table.

The beauty of hot and sour soup back then was that most Americans had no idea what it was. They were content with cups of pedestrian egg drop and won ton. If they were feeling frisky, they might opt for the sizzling rice soup, but that was usually more about seeking attention for themselves in a crowded dining room than a craving for the flavor of the dish. Hot and sour soup was sitting safely on a pedestal, immune from the plebiscites, and a safe bet for the flavor junkies that knew what it was.

But as Chinese food became more mainstream in the American diet, more and more of the chow mein, sweet and sour, and moo goo gai pan crowd figured out what they thought hot and sour soup was, and they thought they wanted it. In typical fashion, most American Chinese restaurants decided to give their diners what the diners wanted, which was a flavorless, meatless, soulless version of a loose approximation of what hot and sour should be. And over the years, it’s gotten dumbed-down and dumbed-down so much that it’s unrecognizable from the real deal. Its trendiness became its death knell, yielding a dull, gloppy sludge with softened vegetables, based on soy sauce and not pork bones, with nary a hint of heat or sourness.

My bowl of hot and sour at China Dynasty was so rich and aromatic you could taste the pork bones simmering for days. The brightness of the vinegar joined forces with the heat from black pepper and Sichuan chile paste, and the crisp vegetables were joined by just-cooked slivers of actual pork meat and meltingly soft tofu. This was a bowl of old school hot and sour, a rarity these days, and so refreshing and satisfying when you find one. It was reinforced by a batch of freshly ground, brilliantly scarlet chile paste that tasted overwhelmingly of fresh, ripe chile peppers. Another rarity.

Egg roll and pan fried dumplings

We moved on with some of Dynasty’s porky, crispy, flaky egg rolls and split an order of their excellent pan fried dumplings. The egg rolls were fresh and plump with ground pork and vegetables. The dumplings were nicely browned on the bottom, and juicy from the pork filling within. Dynasty even makes a great soy-ginger dipping sauce with just the right touch of sugar and vinegar, perfect when bumped up with some of the chile paste.

Chicken with fresh mushrooms, lunch menu

The General, lunch menu

I opted for the chicken with mushrooms while homeboy selected the General Tso’s chicken. My dish was loaded with fresh mushrooms and tender chicken that had been kissed by the sear of the wok, and the brown sauce was chicken stock based and very rich. Their version of General Tso is the authentic brown sauce version (a lot of places seem to confuse General Tso’s chicken with orange or tangerine peel chicken, with a few fried red chiles thrown in). What I really like about Dynasty, is that for their fried chicken dishes, such as General Tso, they use boneless chicken thigh, which has much better flavor than breast meat.

Pork Egg Foo Young!

For some reason, we also ordered a pork egg foo young, which is a dish that’s hard to find these days. Chinese chefs tell me it takes too long for some kitchens to mess with, so they just eliminated it from the menu. Out of sight, and outta mind, so, after not seeing it anymore, it slithered out of diner’s minds. Trust me. You want a good egg foo young? Moist inside, and loaded with slivered pork and crunchy vegetables, all swimming in a rich garlicky-gingery brown sauce? Go to Dynasty.

We also had the luxury of bumping into our favorite waitress, who is the niece of Johann, who used to own Java Noodles on Oltorf. The servers at Dynasty always manage to provide excellent service without being obtrusive. LOVE the Dynasty, and it’s only a couple of blocks from Art’s house.

China Dynasty
Tanglewood Village Shopping Center
2110 W Slaughter Ln, Austin
(512) 280-7153

If you want to make a great bowl of old school hot and sour soup in your own kitchen, here’s my recipe:

Hot and Sour Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens and Pork Shank
Serves 8                                 

Traditionally a thickened soup like this is served as a starter in the West, or as a mid-meal banquet course in China. In Sichuan this soup is spiced using an inordinate amount of black pepper, but I combine the pepper with fermented chile paste to create the piquancy. The flavor of the soup is complex and layered, with the base of rich pork stock, the bright contrast of the vinegar to balance that richness, the spiciness of the pepper and chiles, and the contrasting textures of the ingredients.

Pickled mustard greens (suan cai) have a sour, salty flavor that balances the richness of the meat while blending well with the seasoned broth, and adding umami from the fermentation. You can find the greens at Asian markets in jars or plastic packets. Long braised and unctuous beef shank adds not only rich, tender meat to the mix, but creates intense gelatinous stock, all in keeping with the traditional role of hot and sour soup as a Chinese banquet dish.

This dish involves cooking the shank the day before, but it is a simple procedure that doesn't require much attention at all. Once you taste the unctuous meat and the broth you'll realize the process was well worth the minimal effort.

Advanced Praparation
Braised pork shank:
4 to 5 pounds pork shanks, rinsed and trimmed of excess fat
¼ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup shaoxing rice wine (medium-dry sherry or sake can be used if necessary)
3 cups water
4 scallions, each tied in knot
4 slices ginger
6 cloves garlic, crushed
12 Sichuan peppercorns

Shank Method:
1. Combine all ingredients in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the fire as low as possible, simmering gently for one hour. Flip the shanks over, add additional water if necessary, and simmer an additional hour, or until meat is tender. Let shanks cool and refrigerate in the sauce overnight. Remove shanks from the gelatin and cut against the grain into thin slices. Reserve pork and gelatin for soup.

1 Tablespoon duck fat or lard, or peanut or vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced very thinly
1-inch section of ginger, peeled and matchstick cut
Reserved shank cooking liquid, heated, strained, combined with enough pork or chicken stock to yield 1½ quarts 
1 Tablespoon shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 block medium tofu, 7 to 8 ounces, ½ inch dice
⅓ cup Sichuan preserved mustard greens or cabbage, drained and thinly sliced
5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked 30 minutes to soften in hot water, stems removed, thinly sliced
¼ cup cloud ears, soaked 30 minutes to soften in hot water, thinly sliced
½ cup fresh bamboo shoots, matchstick cut
¼ cup dried lily buds ("golden needles"), soaked 15 minutes to soften in water
½  to 1 teaspoon Sichuan fermented chile paste
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Half of the reserved sliced pork shank meat
4 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed into a smooth slurry with 6 Tablespoons chicken stock
1 large egg, beaten
3 to 4 Tablespoons black Chinese vinegar
3 scallions, green part only, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Soup Method:
2. In a large wok or saucepan, heat the oil over high heat and sauté the garlic and ginger for 30 seconds. Add the stock and bring to a boil, skimming away any foam the forms on the surface. Add the rice wine, soy sauces, tofu, preserved greens, mushrooms and cloud ears, bamboo shoots and lily buds, and the fermented chile paste. Reduce the heat to medium and maintain a low rolling simmer. Cook the soup for 5 minutes to allow the flavors to develop and then taste for salt, pepper, and chile paste. It should taste assertively spicy, savory, and rich.

3. Stir in the reserved shank meat, allow the soup to come back up to a low boil, and add the re-stirred cornstarch slurry in batches, adding a little at a time while stirring, allowing 15 seconds between additions to allow the slurry to thicken the broth. Not all of the slurry may be necessary. The finished texture should be glossy and thickened to a sauce-like consistency, but not gloppy. Stir in the vinegar to taste; it should have a mellow background sourness and just a blast of a vinegary tang.

4. Turn off the heat and slowly add the beaten egg while stirring very slowly; the egg should form thin strands, or what the Chinese call "egg flower".

5. Evenly divide the scallion and sesame oil in the bottom of 8 bowls and mix to combine. Ladle the hot soup over the garnish in the bowls and serve immediately, accompanied by chile oil, or by additional Sichuan chile paste.

One half pound of matchstick-cut lean pork, marinated for 30 minutes in ½ teaspoon shaoxing wine and 1 teaspoon light soy sauce may be substituted for the shank meat. Substitute pork stock for the shank broth. Add the pork to the boiling stock 1 minute before thickening with the cornstarch slurry.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 3, 2015

Renteria's Smoke Causes Tears….for Austin's ‘Cue Lovers

Last night Sabino “Pio” Renteria pursued his manic obsession against Austin’s barbecue restaurants and grilling food trailers, and the amazing thing to me is that he succeeded in getting his proposal to the next level. From listening to him yammer on, it’s apparent that the whole thing stems from the gentrification of East Austin. I hate Californians zooming in and snatching up the eastern side of our city as much as the next guy, offering cash for the asking price on the same day that a property hits the market. It displaces all of the old timers that can no longer afford to live there, and the increase in taxes is forcing old eateries out of the area. If you think the McMansionism of the ’09 zip code was bad a couple of decades back, I would urge you to hop in your lowrider and do an extended cruise around the eastside today.

...you elected him, District 3. Happy now?

But what Renteria fails to understand, is that most of the barbecue venues are leasing their spots, and with the meteoric increase in real estate values (and therefore, taxes) in the area, the rents that the landlords will have to charge will eventually price the barbecue folks out of the area, along with all of the locals. Not to mention the fact that the profit margin on barbecue is abysmally small, and these restaurants cannot afford to buy scrubbers, even if they wanted to. The hipsterification of East Austin will be complete, and only those rich enough to live there will be rich enough to pay the Dallas prices the remaining restaurants in the area will be forced to charge.

When Renteria suggests that instead of wood as a fuel, the restaurants should instead use natural gas, or that smoke scrubbers should be installed on every pit smokestack, he shows what a moron he is when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the meat smoking art. It is a delicate and carefully choreographed dance between wood, fire, and air, and you start jacking around with that tango and you lose the flavor. Even raising the height of the smokestack changes the dynamics. A stack scrubber would be catastrophic.

Most of the hubbub seems to center around Terry Black’s on Barton Springs, and la Barbecue in east Austin. Read this from KXAN’s report on March 30:  “Last year, Terry Black’s Barbecue on Barton Springs Road received two TCEQ complaints alleging smoke nuisance. When TCEQ staff checked the restaurant, the smoke observed was not considered a nuisance and no violations were cited….La Barbecue has seen visits from TCEQ as well. In 2014, there were two complaints regarding smoke and in both instances TCEQ staff determined there was no violation.”

Holiday House WAAAY back in the day.....

It’s really unfortunate that Terry Black’s is one of the featured violators, because I've eaten their barbecue, and it is sub par at best. But the fact remains that the location has been a restaurant since at least the very early ‘60s, cooking flame-kissed burgers over charcoal (Holiday House started in Austin a long time ago). The time to bitch about the possibility that a barbecue restaurant might make some smoke, and that you lived right behind it, on the edge of a limestone cliff that would prevent the dispersal of said smoke, would have been during the months leading up to the opening, when there was near constant news coverage of the joint starting up. Or the public disclosure or posting of their impending alcohol permit, for that matter. Complaining a half a year later, after they've spent a butt load of money, just doesn't work.

This whole situation reminds me of the folks that raised hell about airplane noise when Bergstrom AFB became ABIA. Airplanes make noise, and believe me, B 52 bombers and KC 135 tankers make a HELL of a lot more noise than a puny airliner; we used to live under the approach to the north end of the Bergstrom runway when I was a kid, and it would shake the entire house to its foundation when one flew over (which was frequently). Unless you lived out there before Bergstrom was established, keep your mouth shut. You don’t move next to an airport and bitch about noise. Just like you don’t move close to a barbecue joint, and bitch about smoke.

John Lewis is talking about relocating his pits a little to help disperse the smoke more efficiently. A magnanimous gesture if you ask me. He was granted a certificate of occupancy for that new location, and went through all of the required steps from the City and the Health Department. I also saw some news footage from some guy bitching about the smoke from a smaller mobile food trailer. There are existing zoning provisions which cover that situation: “Neighborhood Planning Contact Team or a Neighborhood Association can adopt additional regulations that regulate the distance and hours of operation of mobile food trailers near residential areas…” No new rules need to be imposed.

Here’s the bottom line, back in the day, getting really excellent barbecue usually required a 30 minute (or more) drive out of Austin, and today we are blessed with a ridiculous bounty of great barbecue within our city limits. Pitmasters like Aaron Franklin, John Lewis, John Mueller, Tom Micklethwait, Lance Kirkpatrick, Bill Kerlin, Evan Leroy, Daniel Brown, Tom Spalding, and the rest have helped Austin’s national reputation as one of the best food cities in the country, as well as one of the nation’s focal points for excellent barbecue. That brings in tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of publicity to Austin, which benefits us all, whether you like barbecue or not. In considering the effects of Renteria’s proposal, I can’t think of a more wrongheaded, discombobulated move for Austin’s City Council to make. If you agree with me, I would encourage you to let him, and the rest of the Council, know about it. Next thing you know, they could be dictating what YOU grill or smoke in your own backyard.

Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Austin City Council, District 3

Mick Vann ©