Pass the Chop Sticks, Por Favor

Texas at last has some first rate Chinese Restaurants. And They're in (where else?) San Antonio.

July 1973By Comments

THERE IS A TRAIL OF broken woks across the Trans-Pecos, a desolate, wind-swept chain of campsites from El Paso to Del Rio strewn with buttons, chopsticks, knives, and brush-lettered coins, indecipherable to Anglo eyes, dropped in yet another round of gambling on a moonless night. There are strange jars of food, tobacco cans, even small brass tins of opium distributed (this was 90 years ago) by the barons of the Southern Pacific Railway, ever willing to keep their Oriental laborers contented after a day of laying a few more feet of tracks and ties across that bleak desert to join Montgomery Street with Wall Street; ever willing (indeed anxious) to buoy the puzzled mind from Canton—Fukien—Chekiang—above his closed thoughts in the silent twilight and away from rumination on the promises that had brought him there.

The Chinese came to Texas. As swiftly and as quickly as they came, they left when the railroad was done. Perhaps again to California (gold was the reason they had come), perhaps to Chekiang, Fukien, Canton (seeing that for them there was no gold but only hard labor in an uncomprehending land). A few stayed here, but only a few; the rest are commemorated not in the Institute of Texan Cultures but in the scattered artifacts that refuse, for want of water, to rust away in the ceaseless West Texas wind.

RECENTLY OTHER CHINESE HAVE FOUND their way back to one of the major cities along that old Southern Pacific roadbed—San Antonio. They have brought skills that for the first time give Texans a chance to sample Chinese cooking of international quality, both Cantonese and northern Chinese. The proprietors of two of Texas’ newest Chinese restaurants are unique, and their restaurants are as different as restaurants can be. We can only hope that their contributions to Texas will be better received, and their stay longer lasting, than that of their countrymen who passed through so briefly almost a century ago.

Admirers of mild and tasty Cantonese dishes will find the King Wah Restaurant, 1512 Bandera, a novel and gratifying experience. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Alfredo Leon and Mr. and Mrs. Maximo Leon, operated a “chifa,” or Chinese restaurant, in Lima, Peru, for ten years before moving to this country in 1972. Despite the Spanish surnames, all four are of Chinese descent. Following a familiar pattern among expatriated Chinese, the husbands left Lima’s large Oriental community as youths to return to the mother country for their education; heritage secured, they came back to take up residence in Peru.

Like San Francisco, Lima possesses an impressive reputation as a center of Chinese cookery. The nearness of the Pacific Ocean has led to the proliferation of an imaginative array of seafood dishes, and the Leons have done a remarkable job of perpetuating this tradition for the benefit of inland San Antonians. The chefs specialty, Kon Shin Ha Kou, consists of unshelled shrimp sauteed in a slightly spicy red sauce ($4.50); diners can also choose from among Wo Tip Ha (shrimp toast, $3), Sea Food with sizzling rice ($4.50), Fun Kin Chong Lung (chicken stuffed with ham and shrimp in black bean sauce, $3.50), or abalone in oyster sauce ( $4.50).

The 120-item menu includes several memorable non-seafood dishes. On a recent visit, our meal began with an intriguing asparagus and chicken soup ($1), continued with faintly-sweet, delicately-seasoned sliced beef tenderloin accompanied by pineapple and cherries ($4.50) and a stunning boneless chicken breast lightly breaded and sauteed before being served in a perfectly-balanced sweet-and-sour lemon sauce ($3) .The piece de resistance was a crisp, satisfying Peking duck with Roisin sauce which—although it lacked the usual accompaniment of scallions and failed to separate the crackling outer skin from the succulent inner meat—served as a reminder of the masterly self-assurance with which the Chinese have transcended the obvious in catering to the palate.

The accomplishments of the King Wah (the name means “magnificent capital”) have been made in the face of obstacles that might have prevented less-energetic restaurateurs from leaving their familiar, hectic chifa in downtown Lima. After a preliminary inspection of their first choice for a new home, New York City, the patrician Leons firmly concluded that the congestion, crime, high rents, and general chaos of that declining megapolis were not for them. They took the advice of a friend and headed for the unknown land of Texas with the intrepid determination of pioneers venturing into uncharted territory. (“None of our friends in Lima had ever heard of San Antonio,” Mrs. Alfredo Leon said later. “Corpus Christi, yes—but San Antonio, never. We finally just had to ten them ‘It’s near the border of Mexico.'”)

The Leons, seeing the Alamo city and pronouncing it good, began decorating their restaurant in mid-1972 and summoned two chefs from Lima, each of whom are said by the owners to have 35-years’ experience. Upon their arrival, the language situation at the King Wah reached absurdity. All four Leons speak Spanish; the wives speak English as well (the result of a crash course before leaving South America). The Leons and their chefs all speak Chinese, of course: but two different dialects, Cantonese and Mandarin, make communication difficult. Since the chefs also know a little Spanish, the lingua franca of this Chinese restaurant is…a most peculiar Spanish. An English-language menu and bilingual chicano waitresses round out the dizzying League of Nations atmosphere.

The King Wah opened on September 17, by chance in the midst of a local Chinese convention. The delegates provided a steady stream of chattering, contented customers for the first three days and the Leons were off to an auspicious start.

At the beginning, Mrs. Leon recalled, cautious San Antonions surveyed the elaborate menu with a quizzical stare and ordered chow mein and chop suey. Egg rolls were considered adventurous. Customers wondered aloud at the absence of bread, crackers, and butter. In a tribute to the quality of their own food and the chefs’ skills, the Leons held on and refused to debase their dishes in the face of this incomprehension. For once the strategy worked. The King Wah now does a thriving business, and on weekend evenings there is often a line of regular customers waiting for a table—crackers and butter the furthest thing from their minds.

The decor at the King Wah is standard Chinese-restaurant style, more tasteful than most. Unobtrusive Chinese lanterns lend an Oriental atmosphere. Table-settings and service are exemplary. A dish is prepared to please the eye as well as the palate; remarkable attention is given to the arrangement of the food on the plate and the minor decorations that enhance its appearance. But in the end it is the character of the food that determines a restaurant’s worth, and in this respect the Leons are building a secure reputation at King Wah. Like the best of Michelin’s choices, it is worth a journey.

THE CUISINE OF NORTHERN CHINA (Peking), Shanghai, and the western province of Szechuan remained little-known to Americans until the late 1960’s. Then, a sudden flowering of interest in Chinese food led curious gourmets to explore the hot, spicy, oily foods of Szechuan and the graceful, aristocratic seasonings of the Mandarin style. They loved them. Went wild about them, in fact. “Northern” Chinese restaurants sprang up on the East and West coasts, and new Szechuan restaurants vied with one another to produce dishes so intimidatingly fiery that the prudent customer often wondered whether he should have brought along a thermos of milk as an emergency fire extinguisher for his tender gastric linings.

Before this Great Culinary Leap Forward, only the merest handful of Chinese restaurants in the United States served anything but Cantonese food. Among the best of these were the two branches of the Peking Restaurant in Washington, D.C., praised by long-time New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne as being “as good as anything New York or San Francisco, which boast of their Chinatowns, can offer.”

Early this year Karate Hsu, who served as chef at one of the Pekings and is the brother of their owner, set forth on his own to open a branch somewhere in the vast virgin territory away from the Coasts. Like the Leons, he picked San Antonio. Bolstered by a modest amount of missionary zeal (“I saw there was no Peking food in San Antonio. I want people to try it so they say, ‘Mandarin food is O.K.'”) he selected a location in a Chinese-owned building on San Antonio’s near West side and set about remodeling it, doing most of the work himself. In March, 1973, the improbably-named Peking Jr. Restaurant was born.

At its best, the food at Karate’s restaurant is simply unbeatable in Texas. He has a repertory of over 400 dishes—the whole menu of the Peking, Washington, is available for your inspection, and with advance notice he can prepare anything on it. One of the best of these is Chicken Velvet, a Chinese banquet dish reserved for special occasions and consisting of finely minced chicken breast, mixed with egg white and stirfried in a matter of seconds along with black mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and snow peas. For some unfathomable reason, Karate insists on calling this Froon Chicken (perhaps that’s really its name), but it is magnificent.

He also can prepare Peking Duck (hung for three days with spices before cooking), Twice-cooked Shrimp, and Twice-cooked Pork, provided you give him some prior notice.

The house menu at the Peking Jr. is much more limited than the parent branch, and some of the listed items like Jao Tze (boiled meat dumplings, $2) are frequently unavailable. But even if you walk in unheralded, you can expect to find succulent Chinese dishes you didn’t even know existed. Simply set aside the menu and tell Karate you want real Chinese food, not chow mein or egg foo young, then sit back and see what he brings. Your repast will probably include Two Kinds of Meat Szechuan Style (shredded pork and chicken in a hot sauce, about $5), truly superb; Moo-Shi Pork (a deftly-seasoned melange of crisp vegetables, egg, and shredded pork rolled at the table in thin crepe-like pancakes, about $4); Kung-Pao Chicken (chicken with peanuts in a hot sauce, $3.50); or Curry Chicken ($3). You can also get such things as O O soup (40), a commendable Sweet and Sour Pork ($2.50), Oyster-sauced Beef ($3.60), or Hot-and-Sour Soup (50). For the spicier dishes, be sure to mention that you want them hot; otherwise Karate may play it safe and opt for milder seasoning.

Karate wanted his place to be “like a family restaurant.” He succeeded. It is essentially a one-man operation. He does all the cooking (ask him to show you his specially-designed small woks, reduced from the usual gargantuan restaurant size in order to improve the cooking); he washes all his own dishes; with the aid of one waitress, he waits all the tables; you can sometimes hear him singing along with the exotic recorded Oriental music as he chops away in the back. If the place is not busy, he is as likely as not to sit down and join you while you eat. (You can learn a lot from this.)

As you might have gathered, dinner at the Peking Jr. is not a particularly sedate experience. Karate knows a lot more about classic Chinese cooking than he does about running a restaurant, and the rough edges are sometimes painfully obvious. This is a pity, because the excellence of the food surely merits better organization. But organization depends in part on a steady flow of hungry customers, and the misfortune of the Peking Jr. to date has been that people just don’t even know it exists. Located in the warehouse and market district on a one-way street used mainly by chicanos traveling between downtown San Antonio and the barrios of the West Side, it has phenomenally low visibility to the Anglo clientele that supports the King Wah. Actually, though, it is no more than an easy four-minute walk under IH 35 from the popular, all-night Mi Tierra Mexican restaurant.

Karate worries that customers who do know about his place may stay away at night because they think the neighborhood might be dangerous. He points to the parking directly in front of his door and scoffs at the idea. “Besides,” he chuckles, “I studied karate for seventeen years and taught the Washington, D.C. police department. I can take care of things.” A giant blown-up photo on the wall attests to his black-belt status. Nevertheless, in his search for regular customers who think “Mandarin food is O.K.,” Karate is contemplating a shift to a Northside location; you should check to make sure he is still at 406 Buena Vista before you go.

A FOOTNOTE ON OTHER CHINESE restaurants in Texas: while we have found none to compare with the Peking Jr. and the King Wah, the runnerup would certainly be the Peking Palace, 4119 Lomo Alto, Dallas. Also associated with the Washington Pekings, it is comfortable, pleasant, and smoothly-run. The food (though good) lacks the discipline of the others, and the prices are a little on the high side. Austin’s best is the Great Wall, 12408 Bumet Road; but its food is merely high-quality Texas-Chinese rather than the real thing. By reputation the Ming Palace is the best in Houston, which goes to show that reputations can be wrong. It bears no resemblance to an authentic Chinese restaurant. We have yet to find a suitable place in Fort Worth.

GOOD CHINESE FOOD IS SHEER delight. Once you become familiar with it, you may find yourself shopping around for a good wok and a reliable set of recipes for home-cooking. (We strongly recommend The Chinese Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee, as the best available guide for the novice and the old-timer alike). Texas is on the threshold of having a reasonable selection of dependable Chinese restaurants for the first time in its history. Although the prices at the best new restaurants may seem high when compared to the price at your old Chinese-American chop suey standby, the quality of the ingredients and the excellence of the final result are well worth what you pay.

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