Monday, July 25, 2011

General Tso's Death March

General Tso’s Chicken is the best food in the world. This is what it tastes like: mad scientists combined the DNA of an eagle, a lion, a dinosaur, and Aron Ralston AKA the guy from the James Franco movie who cut his own arm off with a Leatherman tool in order to escape a ravine. Then they took the resulting badass mutant bird and assassinated it using the only means possible to kill such a resilient beast: they had to throw it into the sun. Then, using a space craft and several million miles of special towing cables, they removed the carcass, rolled it in uncut cocaine, and deep fried it. Then they coated it in Christina Hendrick’s vaginal juices. The resulting delicious gleaming abomination is General Tso’s Chicken.

I’m a HUGE fan of the General’s. I once wrote nostalgic paean to the General since it is unquestionably my favorite food. But my absolute favorite purveyor of the General closed in 2006, and I hadn’t been able to find a suitable replacement in Seattle. So in the true martial tradition of the A-Team and other buddy movies with an ensemble cast, I recruited a crack team of fellow gourmands to help me track down Seattle’s most delicious iteration of General Tso’s Chicken.

Joining me in my quest were men whose palates I trust without question, men with august personages and huge penises who are leaders in their respective fields: Matthew Amster- Burton is a well-known local food writer and a fellow General Tso’s aficionado. Langdon Cook is an author and professional forager, whose poetic turns of phrase are surpassed only by his ability to discover a bunch of killer shrooms. Marc Schermerhorn is a food blogger and an experienced chef who’s staged at Alinea and Allium on Orcas. Henry Lo is an architect and experienced home cook. Henry is also a true General Tso’s authority: a family friend of his is a chef who studied under Peng Chang-kuei, the Chinese chef who INVENTED THE GENERAL TSO’S RECIPE. And so with my expert cabal assembled, we ventured afield.

Louie’s Cuisine of China was our first stop. Nuggets of breast meat were doused in a light sauce. The meat itself was a little dry, though not offensively so. The batter was very airy; indeed, it manifested itself as a bare dusty coating on the surface of each nugget. The sauce managed to be sweet without being syrupy. A good plate of the General usually comes with a couple florets of steamed broccoli, but Louie’s version didn’t include any. While I assigned demerits for the lack of the General’s native flora, some of my colleagues disagreed. Langdon was quite smitten with Louie’s, ranking it as his favorite, and Matthew scoffed at my proposed rating for Louie’s. “I’d give it a 10 for no broccoli.” But I’m writing this review, Matthew, and not you.

Rating: 7 Louie’s out of 10.

Judy Fu’s Snappy Dragon was next up, and I must say, with absolute clarity and a complete lack of obsfucation, that they failed to not disappoint. Judy Fu’s failure was surprising given that the hand-shaved noodles they serve there are the second best shaved thing in the world. However, this usually reliable Maple Leaf institution was a stalwart in the worst sense of the world: it was stale and tasted like warts. These limp- wristed slabs of pity were shrouded in a puffy winding sheet of soggy batter and condemned to an ignoble burial at sea in a bland ocean of slimy sauce. Visually, Judy Fu’s General was quite striking, shellacked an impetuous and glossy maroon, like a lacquered box found at an estate sale. But unlike in nature, where the vivid colors of toxic South American frogs and treacherous butterflies serve as a visual growl to predators, Judy Fu’s General had no bite: spice was nonexistent and the tang was muted. It tasted like watered- down Aunt Jemima’s. Sad. It wasn’t the worst version of the General we tasted on our campaign, but given Snappy Dragon’s reputation, it was the biggest letdown. This General deserves a court martial.

Rating: 2 defanged predators out of 10

Black Pearl is just down the street from Judy Fu’s and we managed to infiltrate the premises just before closing. Black Pearl’s version of the General was okay: massive hunks of chicken breast were crusted in a lackadaisical batter, which was serviceable, if spongy, much like your mom. The chicken was glossed over with an unlikely sauce which somehow managed to be both spicy and bland at the same time. While it wasn’t too bad, Black Pearl’s General Tso’s is hardly the stuff of legend.

Rating: 5 serviceable, spongy batters out of 10

Chiang’s Gourmet proved to be quite the conundrum. On paper, at least, Chiang’s General should have been superlative: juicy nuggets of thigh meat were jacketed in a really crunchy crust. These nuggets cavorted playfully amid a tangy citrusy sauce with a rumbling heat. Everyone besides me seemed to enjoy Chiang’s General, but I kept getting overcooked pieces: while the sauce was good, the batter seemed to be scorched and the meat was stringy and dry. “You must’ve gotten a rogue piece,” Henry offered, but if I did then it must’ve been a rogue dynasty, because the second piece I ate was easily the Kim Jong- Il of General Tso’s Chicken. Still, Chiang’s gets a boost in the ratings from me because the sweet and spicy sauce was quite tasty, and I was clearly the victim of a statistical outlier.

Rating: 4 outliers out of 10

China Harbor did a pretty good job: hearty slabs of poultry stare up at you from beneath a glistening bronze pool of sticky and vinegary sauce. The crust is deceptively crisp; it looks like it would be flabby yet somehow, blessedly, it isn’t. Yet China Harbor is such a wacky fucking place, the décor almost detracts from the food: it’s not only a restaurant, it’s also a fucking marina. And there’s an indoor swimming pool. The dated interior décor sports the classic red-on-black color scheme and musty Victorian chinoiserie of the old Chinese restaurants of yesteryear. It’s the kind of place where it seems like people should legally still be allowed to smoke inside. It’s the kind of place where Jews eat on Christmas Day. The panoramic view of Lake Union can’t be beat, but unfortunately the General cares not for such things. After all, what is best in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women: these things are best in life.

Rating: 6 pieces of chinoiserie out of 10

As far as asian restaurants go, Monsoon rivals perhaps only Wild Ginger as the most popular among crackers. Seriously, Monsoon’s Drunken Chicken is the white-breadiest dish on the menu of one of the whitest restaurants in Honkey Town, also known as the back side of Capitol Hill. True, it technically isn’t called “General Tso’s,” but here we just assumed that the General was going undercover, because while Monsoon’s Drunken Chicken might violate the letter of General Tso’s iron-fisted law, it joyfully embraces its spirit. Tender cuts of chicken breast, juicy like an issue of Us Weekly, were breaded in a crisp batter that practically fragmented when bitten into, and painted with a complex and subtle sauce that managed to negotiate the fine line between sweet and sour. The Drunken Chicken was dusted in sesame seeds and served on a sprightly bed of sautéed yu choy. Masterful.

Rating: 8.5 delicious examples of deliciousness out of 10

At this point we suffered our first casualty: Matthew had to go home, but he urged the rest of his comrades to soldier on. So we did. The last battle of the campaign took place at Honey Court. Honey Court’s General Tso’s was universally panned by my compatriots, but I found it intriguing. True, the desiccated shreds of chicken breast were sheathed in a limp parka of foamy batter, and the sauce had too much cornstarch, which gave it the consistency of the swill found on the floor of a peep show. Despite all of that, I rather enjoyed it, in a perverse way, mostly because I liked the flavor of the sauce: it was tangy and bright orange, with a vinegary heat, as if they mixed a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot with corn starch slurry. Honey Court’s General Tso’s Chicken fails on almost every level, but the sauce was different, at least. Accompanying the General were a couple stiff green broccoli florets, glossy and dense like the plastic food inside a floor model refrigerator at Sear’s.

Rating: 1 slurry out of 10

The General is a formidable foe, and his chicken is not to be fucked with. Many places try in vain to capture the General’s flag, but end up, like your mom, looking like a homeless asshole with a dick in her mouth. Yet a few masters do in fact turn out a respectable homage to General Tso’s greatness. Now you know.