Photo by Anne Fishbein
Often, the art of cookery is to present a great ingredient at its best, like a late-summer peach whose peachiness is amplified, made even more delicious in a juicy, runny tart baked by Euro Pane’s Sumi Chang. And sometimes the art of cookery lies in disguise, a slab of seared foie gras made into some kind of exotic savory pastry cream, for example, or an Umbrian lake fish baked with fennel and garlic until its flesh resembles roast pork.
Nobody may delight quite so much in culinary fakery as gifted Chinese chefs, who convert soybeans and wheat gluten and mushrooms into poached chicken, roast goose, crispy pork and practically anything else you can think of — big Chinese supermarkets will often have entire aisles devoted to the skillfully replicated “meats.” The best of these chefs conjure “shrimp” real enough to put off seafood haters, “pork kidneys” whose layered crunchiness is authentic enough to give the creeps to offal-phobes. I love the Chinese world of fake food. But nothing in my experience quite prepared me for the Shenyang fake dog meat at the newish Northern Chinese Restaurant in Rosemead, a dish powerful enough to give even the most devoted carnivores among us pause.
Northern Chinese Restaurant may be the first restaurant in California to specialize in the food of Shenyang, a provincial capital near the North Korean border that has for centuries been considered the most important trading city of northeastern China, convenient to both nomadic traders and sailors, original home of both the long-lived Qing dynasty and the actress Gong Li. Shenyang-style cooking is basic, hearty stuff, probably better suited to long, hard winters than to California summers: The casserole of pickled sour cabbage is a neat Chinese version of Strasbourg-style choucroute, a full quart of soupy sauerkraut garnished with slabs of stewed duck or fat house-cured pork belly, the kind of dish that can make you yearn for a carafe of Alsatian Riesling.
The restaurant is probably not the easiest place for non-Chinese to navigate without assistance, and even native Mandarin speakers are likely to be put off a little by the heavy northern accents of the waitresses. Of the four dishes on the menu called “crispy clams,” three involve prawns, and one (item No. 4 in the seafood section of the menu, if you’re interested) seems to be batter-dipped fried oysters served with a little dish of pepper-salt. An appetizer identified only as “cold vegetable combination” is something roughly like your corner deli’s Chinese chicken salad without the chicken: lettuce, sweet dressing, wispy thin croutons.
A dish named something innocuous like “tofu brown sauce” may turn out to be brawny, delicious noodles fashioned from pressed bean curd sautéed in garlicky gravy. Shenyang fried potatoes, on the other hand, is just that, what seems like a bushelful of oily shreds lightly sautéed with flecks of hot pepper. There are four versions of cumin squid (I like the first, nicely crusted with the pungent spice), four versions of turtle in brown sauce, and four different ways to enjoy pig elbow — if you don’t mind chewy things, you might want to try your pig elbow smoked.
Shenyang is also known for its dumplings — Lao Bian Dumpling House, one of the most famous dumpling restaurants in China, is there — and Northern Chinese Restaurant offers quite a few, all of them on the sturdy side, including incredibly intense steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and lots of dill, juicy dumplings of celery and lamb, and dumplings stuffed with pork and that Shenyang-style kraut. Almost everybody in the restaurant will be eating one of the pastries, either the greasy jing dong meat pie or the fried pancakes served with scallions, bean sauce and curls of stewed pigskin.
If you came across Shenyang fake dog meat — a low heap of cold, shredded pork, gritty with ground cumin and strongly scented with vinegar and garlic — in another context, you might suppose it to be leftover North Carolina pulled-pork barbecue taken straight out of the refrigerator, or last week’s Brunswick stew. There is a funk, a powerful gaminess to the preparation, which sometimes comes with pork cooked a really long time but can also be coaxed out of meat with strong and careful seasonings, like the many Italian dishes described as alla cacciatora, cooked to resemble game.
I have no idea if the Shenyang fake dog meat tastes anything like real dog meat. Shenyang is known for its dog preparations — as the friendly skeptics at Snopes.com concur, the favored dogs are Saint Bernards, both for their massive size and their excellence of flavor — but dog is an expensive luxury meat even in China. One would have to assume that at least a few chefs in Shenyang cook pork in the manner of dog. (Another specialty of Shenyang seems to be its delicious baked bear paws, and reviews of local restaurants carefully point out that the bear is unlikely to be real. I suspect the red-cooked tiger’s kidneys I’ve heard about aren’t real either.)
And I also have no idea whether the émigrés who favor the restaurant are homesick for the taste of dog meat or just the taste of fake dog meat. Regina in porchetta, for example, that Umbrian dish of carp cooked like pork, may be a Lenten substitute for porchetta, but it is also an elegant thing in itself.
Northern Chinese Restaurant, 8450 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-9299. Lunch and dinner seven days 10:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $12–$22.