my staples: summer blueberry liqueur

dscf3975.jpgWhen my husband and I arrived in Oregon, we went blueberry picking at a farm just outside of town. I had picked blueberries in my childhood, but in Michigan blueberries grow in bogs on small bushes, not on hills in hedges that are higher than my head, so I dressed in waterproof boots and slathered on the mosquito repellent, not bothering to bring a hat.

A few hours later, he had wandered off with his bucket to quaff fresh blueberry juice at the home base, and I was sunburnt and lost in the foliage. Finally, I made my way back, branches in my hair, a huge pail of blueberries. We ate them for weeks, often by the handful, then in crumbles and pies, then in jams and syrups, and still our freezer held as many as it could store. Oregon’s Willamette Valley – can you see why people call this place paradise?

The nice thing about frozen blueberries is that you can bring back a bit of summer to the dead of winter. I’m cleaning out my freezer right now, and I have just enough to make a new batch of my Summer Blueberry Liqueur. It doesn’t take up much space or time to put up, but you do need to devote some time to filtering the liqueur. This liqueur can be sipped and used in cocktails, but it also adds a perfect blueberry note to fruit salads, and crumbles, in whipped cream and poured over pound cake. I add some to my blackberry jam. In short, it’s one of my kitchen staples. Since I first made it several summers ago, I’ve had some on hand. If you cultivate a few staples like these that make your cooking special, you can add your own style to every dish you make.

Summer Blueberry Liqueur

(recipe adapted from Gunther Anderson)

You will need several months processing time to make and age this liqueur. Ideally, use big, plump, juicy blueberries you picked last summer and froze whole. If this isn’t possible, use organic frozen blueberries.

2 cups, packed, frozen blueberries
1.5 cups vodka (80 proof)
zest from one organic lemon, in long strips (use vegetable peeler, making sure to get only yellow part)
.75 cups simple syrup (see recipe below)
Optional: whole spices, such as a few black peppercorns, coriander, cloves, part of a cinnamon stick, juniper berries, a dried chili

Steeping the Berries
Don’t worry about the simple syrup yet. Let blueberries thaw, mush them up well to release juices. You are using frozen berries because they are much juicier than fresh ones. In a quart jar with a tight-fitting, removable lid, add the blueberries, the vodka, and the lemon peel. Steep for at least one month in a cool, dark place (no need to refrigerate), shaking gently every couple of days.

Making Simple Syrup
Now worry about the simple syrup. Boil two cups sugar to one cup water. Watch carefully once it starts boiling, because there will be a point where the liquid will suddenly go from cloudy to clear. When this happens, and the liquid is completely clear, you have succeeded in making simple syrup. Let cool, then use 3/4 cup for this recipe and the rest for your iced tea or lime rickeys. Can be stored in the refrigerator in a clean bottle.

Filtering the Liqueur
Open the blueberry jar, and strain the liquid from the berries. Filter the liquid three times: (1) through a sieve, (2) through a double layer of cheesecloth on the sieve, pressing down on the berries as much as you can to get out all the tasty berriness, and (3) through a gold coffee filter fitted atop a large funnel, and don’t skip this step, because it’s the one that will give you a ruby clear liquid. The last filter will be very slow. I find I need to rinse this filter several times because it gets plugged up completely with sediment.

Place liquid in a clean quart jar, then add 3/4 cup syrup to liqueur, shake well, and age for another month or two in a dark place. You may freeze the berry residue for use as alcoholic topping for ice cream, but I find the taste is a bit too harsh.

Spicing It Up
Many of the recipes online will tell you to add a few whole cloves or coriander – because I use this recipe for so many purposes and need to communicate “BLUEBERRY!” I prefer a clean blueberry taste, but you might like something spicier that acts as a counterpoint to the blueberry.

pomegranates market: harissa for your carrots

What with the announcement of a new Moroccan restaurant planned for Eugene, I knew I had to go buy some harissa at our local Middle East market, Pomegranates, to celebrate with a big pot of couscous. I don’t have anything against musty, dusty ethnic grocery stores with bottles of mysterious sticky rat-chewed-labeled substances that no one has bought in at least 10 years, and I patronize them frequently. But Pomegranates is a different game. Owned and run by Julie Lenox-Sharifi, this clean, bright little store has lines of products that are clearly lovingly hand-selected. It has dry goods from Lebanon, Israel, Spain and Italy, among other places, and a full line of Persian packaged goods, plus Middle East-inflected spices from abroad and domestic companies, sweets from a variety of places, and a nice selection of Middle East cookbooks. Offered for tasting when I went last week was Turkish delight, Persian tea, regional Italian olive oils at excellent prices, and a pomegranate vinegar highly recommended by the delightful Ms. Lenox-Sharifi.dscf6583.jpg

Now, on to the complainin’.

New Moroccan restaurant = good. The owner of Adam’$ Place running it = not $o good. When I look at a menu and see uninteresting dishes I can easily make at home with a few trendy geegaw garnishes and buzzwords ensuring price points that exclude academics from any more than an occasional evening out, I don’t have any interest in the place. Adam’s Place makes that mistake, and thus misses the opportunity to grab the market share for the university community.

But if the food is unusual, we’ll part with our coins. Moroccan food is always expensive, so that will keep the crowd in the economic bracket they seem to want, but I’m excited that the new restaurant is unusual enough to make US see the need to go out to eat there. I just really, really, really hope that the folks in charge will make good on their promise in the Register-Guard that it will aim to be authentic Moroccan, and not a mishmash of Middle Eastern cuisine “inspired” by the strong flavors of that huge, diverse area.

In any case, it will drum up an interest in Middle Eastern cooking, so I hope that Pomegranates will become more well-known and patronized in Eugene. So I’d advise you to get in on the action early. On March 15, at 6:00 pm, Ms. Lenox-Sharifi will be offering a Persian New Year (Na Rooz) cooking class at the fabulous kitchen in our local kitchen superstore, Hartwick’s. Call Hartwick’s at (541) 686-0126 for reservations. Classes fill up quickly and the price is great, so don’t hesitate if you’re interested.

At the market, I purchased Mustapha’s Moroccan harissa, highly recommended by Ms. Lenox-Sharifi, who also gave me her recipe for Carrot and Harissa Purée. This harissa is unusual in that it contains preserved lemons, and it isn’t nearly as spicy as other packaged harissas I’ve tried (e.g., the stuff in the tube they sell at Newman’s and Marché Provisions). If you try the recipe below and have a different harissa, please be sure to taste for spiciness and adjust accordingly.



Moroccan Carrot Purée with Harissa

(adapted from Julie Lenox-Sharifi’s recipe)

I hate carrots. They are one of the only foods that I actively dislike, and the only vegetable. I’ve searched long and hard for a carrot recipe that I like. This is it. I can’t get enough of this stuff. The carrots are bright and spunky, their natural sweetness counteracted by the lemon and chile in the harissa, and made smooth by the olive oil base. I used half a bag of old, leftover grocery store carrots, but I’m sure it would be even more brilliant with fresh garden carrots, especially the varieties good for roasting, such as Atomic Red.

1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch slices

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling on carrots before roasting

1 T. Mustapha’s Moroccan harissa (or substitute 1 t. other harissa plus 1 t. chopped preserved lemons or 1 t. lemon juice plus some zest), or to taste

1/4 t. cumin

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place carrots and garlic in baking dish, and drizzle with some olive oil. Roast until you see some dark brown spots, about 30 minutes depending on the water content in the carrots.

Let carrots cool to warm, then process them with harissa, cumin, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pour in 1/3 cup of olive oil as you process. Adjust seasonings. Serve at room temperature on slices of baguette, crackers, pita bread. Also would work well as a side dish or as a stuffing.

Yield: about 2 cups.

and he cleans, too!

dscf6597.jpgMy husband is better than your husband. Sometimes he goes on cleaning jags, zipping around at lightening speed, totally focused and totally thorough. Yesterday, he decided it was time to clean the kitchen floor (and he had a point). He swept, vacuumed, mopped, scrubbed and swabbed the corners with a rag on his hands and knees. No, I don’t get it either. But I’m sure glad he’s around.

This isn’t going to be a food blog that goes on and on about how wonderful my partner is — there are enough of those already and I have to admit I find them kind of annoying. But dang. That man can sparklify. And someone needs to know about it.

Homes, said I, can we make this a weekly gig?

Not on your life, he replied, now get to the grocery store while the gettin’s good.

the buñueloni


February 22 marks the birthday of my favorite director, Luis Buñuel, and I wouldn’t be happier if you were to join me in celebrating with a martini. Primordial in his life, said Buñuel, the martini provokes or sustains reverie, and thus I find it crucial to have at least a martini or two if one is to understand his oeuvre. His martini recipe is discussed in his autobiography, and in the short biographical film El Náufrago de la Calle Providencia (Castaway on the Street of Providence) (1971), which is appended to the Criterion DVD of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

If you really want to show off your Buñuel chops, though, bypass the martini and head straight for his creation, the Buñueloni. In the documentary, Buñuel mixes up a pitcher of these beauties, which he claimed were 3 parts gin, 2 parts “Carpano,” and 1 part Cinzano or what he called “sweet martini.” These were served over ice in a tall glass with an orange twist, and the drink was deeply colored (red or brown). Simple enough, you think. But would you expect simplicity from the man who brought you the Andalusian dog?

The problem with his tutorial is that Buñuel doesn’t pour what he says he’s pouring. We got our geek on, and we discovered that he actually pours 1.5 gin, 1 Carpano, 1 (or maybe a skosh more) Cinzano. As you can see, the proportions are quite different.

A larger problem is that Buñuel doesn’t specify which “Carpano” he means. Because the drink is supposed to be a modification of the Negroni (1-1-1 gin-Campari-sweet vermouth), and because Carpano almost always signifies Punt e Mes in latter-day US of A, I initially thought the bitter Punt e Mes would be the substitute for the bitter Campari. But is it?

The Carpano family has been making four kinds of vermouth since, like, forever in Italy: Rosso (also called Classico), Bianco, Antica Formula (softer, gingerbready, chestnut-colored, complex and the most expensive of the four), and Punt e Mes (reddish-brown, raisiny, extra bitter). Since Buñuel didn’t specify which one, one might assume he meant “Classico,” but because he mentions the drink was expensive, he could have meant “Antica Formula,” which commands a higher price than the other Carpanos in Italy and the U.S.

Carpano Antica retails in California at about $30 for 1L and is hard to find. Punt e Mes, which is slightly cheaper at 750 mL/$21, is available at BevMo. Since 2002, Punt e Mes has been owned by the people who make Fernet Branca, Fratelli Branca, and there’s just one place on the bottle that mentions Carpano, but you’ll still see it marketed as Carpano Punt e Mes. The Classico isn’t available, to my knowledge, in the U.S.

I managed to get my hands on a bottle of Antica and poured myself a Buñueloni with it. Oh. My. God. The drink was still a warm, reddish brown, but the similarities ended there. The Antica smoothed all the tears of the bitter Punt e Mes away and left a comforting, haimisch spiciness that was absolutely lovely. It *completely* transformed the drink. It was sweet, and yet not cloying in any way. I might call it flirtatious — warm, supple, a skosh mysterious, coy, hints of bitterness, with an undeniable kick that lingered. By the second sip, I was mesmerized. It was perverse seduction, forbidden attraction, the pinch of love, necrophiliac fantasies, the caress of a shoe, a maid, a revolutionary cornered, the beat of wings, the path to salvation, mud flung, a sudden gunshot, the moon, the clouds, the moment of suspense before the razor strikes. Glorious.

So, without further ado, the final recipe.


1.5 oz. gin

1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

1 oz. Cinzano Rosso (sweet vermouth)

Stir and pour over ice in a highball glass. Garnish with an orange slice. Drink with likeminded friends, or alone with the Marquis de Sade, Freud, Marx and Engels and/or the entomologist Lucien Fabre, all cherished by Buñuel.

embittered beef stew and cuisine tristesse


I’m a humanities graduate student finishing her dissertation who has just gone on the market for the first time. Needless to say, I am embittered.

For months, I have been flirting with a recipe category I call “la cuisine tristesse,” exploring the bitter side of food with ingredients like endives, artichokes, escarole, almonds — anything that makes you pucker up or bites back. So what better way to perform one’s emotional angst than experiment with bitters?

The only bitters I can find in my lovely two-bit town are Angostura, which are available in every grocery store. A friend has scored me some Regan’s orange bitters, which I’ll pick up on my next trip to the Bay Area. So my experiments have just begun. Until I can get my lazy behind up from winter hibernation and on the road, Angostura is my monogamous plaything.

And just what is it that I’m playing with? Angostura is meted out in dashes. It’s an herbal concoction that is faintly sweet and spicy, with a bitter kick in the end. The standard use of Angostura, of course, is in cocktails. The mixology historians say a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without Angostura. But there’s also a slew of recipes out there, many concocted by the Angostura corporation itself, for food seasoned with these bitters. It makes sense. If it adds a certain je-ne-sais-quois to mixed drinks, it can also enliven food. After some research, including this fantastic 1933 recipe booklet from Angostura scanned and made available by LambMartini, I have found that the best recipes for an Angostura infusion are those with a high fat content, the creamy mouthfeel acting as counterpoint to the bitterness.

I’ve already written about my coeur à la crème experiment with Angostura. Last night my husband made the mistake of telling me to refill his drink, so I made him a “Poor Man’s Orangina” with OJ, Perrier, lemon and Angostura. (For the record, it was tasty, and he requested it again tonight!) I refrained from adding Angostura to the butter cookies I made the other day, but I did try it in a dressing for salmon and roasted fennel, combining the Angostura with whole-grain mustard and olive oil (much tastier with the fatty salmon than the fennel). And it is delicious on orange slices. I can’t wait until strawberry season, peach season! Mmm…and in whipped cream.

But by far, the best marriage I’ve made is Angostura and beef stew. This recipe is my Boeuf Bourguignon On Vacation in Provence recipe made zippy with Angostura. It will serve four, and freezes well. Share your bitterness. Your friends will love it.

Embittered Beef Stew

1 bottle deep, rich wine (I use Syrah or Cabernet, but a Burgundy or Pinot Noir would be more authentic)

3-4 pounds chuck beef, cut into 2-inch chunks (best to buy a chuck roast and cut it yourself, since “stew beef” contains a variety of cuts)

2-3 T. bacon drippings or vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion

1 juicy orange, peel removed with vegetable peeler with as little white pith as possible and juiced into bowl

2-3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 bay leaves

1 t. dried thyme or a handful of fresh thyme

2 T. flour

salt and pepper

optional: 2 c. frozen pearl onions and 1 package button mushrooms, chopped

a few dashes of Angostura bitters

If you have time, marinate the meat overnight in 1/2 bottle wine, orange juice, orange peel, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. If not, rinse and pat meat dry with paper towels. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a heavy dutch oven, brown meat in several batches in bacon drippings or vegetable oil (if you have any leftover bacon or salt pork, add these for more flavor).

When meat is a deep, mahogany brown on all sides, remove the meat and set aside in a bowl. Saute onions in drippings until golden, then return the meat to the dutch oven. Add the marinade or 1/2 bottle wine, orange peel, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Cover and place in oven.

Pour yourself a glass of wine. Set aside rest of bottle.

After about an hour and a half, remove the stew from the oven and skim the fat from the top into a pan. If there isn’t about 2 T., add some butter, then the 2 T. of flour. Make a roux, which you will use to thicken the stew: stirring constantly, cook the flour with the fat until mixture is peanut-butter-colored. Stir it into the stew, along with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another hour and a half, or until meat is fork tender and can be pulled apart easily.

About 10 minutes before done, add the rest of the bottle of wine. It will brighten the color and add a tart flavor layer to the stew. At this point, adjust the seasoning and remove garlic cloves, orange peel, and bay leaves. You may also now add sauteed button mushrooms and/or frozen pearl onions sauteed on medium heat with a bit of soy sauce and sugar to carmelize.

Serve over boiled potatoes or egg noodles. Immediately prior to serving, add 2-3 dashes per serving of Angostura bitters to each serving dish.

Another option is to substitute Angostura with orange bitters. I will try this as soon as I can.

the chinese new year chinese food massacre, or, eating chinese in eugene, Part II

This, Part II of Eating Chinese in Eugene, is a review of Fortune Inn on W. 6th and Ocean Sky on Chambers.


And I sadly shake my head.

I’m cantankerous and prejudiced about food, I’ll admit, but I try to step back and assess the possibilities, especially when other people are being positive about it. I felt that way about Fortune Inn, because what scant reviews there are seemed to be ok, and since there truly seems to be no choice in Eugene, I thought I’d investigate. Were the two “best” local Chinese restaurants better than P. F. Chang’s? And what is missing when you choose the real dive over the fancy dive?

When we drove up to the Fortune Inn restaurant, unpromisingly squatting across the street — the street out of town — from a Jack-in-the-Box, a weathered old sign greeted us. Nary an Asian person was in sight either behind the counter or in the restaurant. That’s not a good sign, even in Eugene. (P. F. Chang’s, for the record, had none either when I was there.) Location for excellent budget restaurants, however, is often misleading, and I was willing to give it a chance.

We found it unnerving that the “new” menu tacked to the inside of the old one had specialties like fried wontons and wonton soup. The old menu had items that were more authentic-sounding, such as the Cantonese classic West-Lake Minced Beef Soup ($9.50) and two meatball soups, a Beef Meat Ball Soup ($8.00) and a Seaweed Fish Ball Soup ($7.50). It also has all the standards you’d expect in an American-Chinese restaurant, including noodles (chow fun and chow mein) and sizzling rice platters. We ordered a handful of dishes, Dry Cook Green Bean ($8.50), Ma-Po Tofu (Soft Bean Curd) ($8.50), Special Chow Mein ($10) and Fried Chicken with Garlic Sauce ($9.50). The squid dishes, in particular the Fried Squid with Spiced Salt ($13) on the Chef’s Suggestions menu, looked interesting, but we were afraid to order squid on our first visit, considering the bad frozen squid experiences we’ve had at other budget Chinese places. I ordered the rather doughy but otherwise good pork Pot Stickers ($6.50) on a separate visit. I can’t speak for the Human Shrimp ($13) with ketchup, though.

When the food arrived, we were disappointed. That unique, fake umami smell from MSG hung over all the dishes. The best of the bunch was the green beans, but they insisted on mixing in canned Chinese mushrooms, which have absolutely no benefit over using fresh or dried mushrooms (or, might I suggest, Szechuan pickle or, even nothing at all). The beans were wrinkly and flavorful, though, and even without any punchy Szechuan pepper or carmelized garlic or green onion, they were still tasty. Special Chow Mein wasn’t particularly special, but it also wasn’t bad. It featured chicken, char shu pork, shrimp and the standard mix of broccoli, carrots and other green vegetables in a gloopy clear sauce over pan-fried noodles. Fried Chicken with Garlic Sauce was just that: heavily breaded chicken breast, sliced on the bias and served with not-very-pungent and not-very-fresh garlic gloopy sauce poured on top. Again, tasty in a junky way, but not great. The Ma-Po Tofu was not ma-po tofu. It was pieces of tofu in a clear brown sauce with a few peas swimming around it and black pepper sprinkled on top. We didn’t ask for it hot, which we should have, or with meat, which we should have, and maybe then it would have been more like real ma-po.

The restaurant is housed in what seems to be an old roadside diner, and the decor is a shade over bare bones, with unusual (I’d say rococo but that’s not the right word) oriental chandeliers and standard issue “Chinese” pictures on the wall. It’s a far cry from P. F. Chang’s dark wood and high ceilings and dramatic lighting. Is this tradeoff worth it for food that is a bit better and in larger portions? I’m not sure. There’s something depressing about the ambiance, the clientele, the location. Is it more depressing to see more upmarket Eugene businesspeople getting taken for a ride with crappy food in a nice environment, or downmarket Eugene businesspeople getting ok food in a crappy environment? It’s really six in one, half-dozen in another. One plus: we took the leftovers home, thinking that we could make something else with the tofu, and eat the noodles and beans and chicken. We did. It was edible the second day, unlike the food from P. F. Chang’s.

As for Ocean Sky, that remains our favorite Chinese restaurant in Eugene. By default. It is consistently fresh, always busy, and the cooks have a lighter touch with the cornstarch in the American-Chinese dishes with the gloopy sauce, and have a deft hand with seasoning. If you want spicy, they give you spicy. You don’t need to fiddle with soy sauce or vinegar or white pepper to make the seasonings taste right.  And yet, they bus in old folks from a local retirement home for lunch, so it works with the staunchest white people palates out there.  Let’s not forget where we are.

The prices are about the same as those at Fortune Inn, and I read somewhere that a former cook at Ocean Sky now works at Fortune Inn, so the menus read remarkably similar.

What’s different is the portion size. The portions are large at Fortune Inn, and absolutely leviathan at Ocean Sky. When I order, for example, Mu Shi Pork ($9.95), it comes on a platter-sized plate and serves two very hungry people for dinner, plus lunch and even dinner the next day. The leftovers are very edible. I order their Won Ton Soup ($6.95) when I’m sick, and the takeout version is a quart of chicken broth, plus a heaping serving of steamed vegetables (sliced whole baby bok choi, broccoli, carrot, snow peas, peppers) and at least a dozen wontons.

The atmosphere is better than Fortune Inn, if only for the size and buzz possessed by a permanently busy restaurant. It’s still housed in an old building in need of renovation, but instead of a diner I think the building used to be a medical office from the design of the place. I have to admit that my husband doesn’t like the divey feel of Ocean Sky, but I don’t mind it too much. You’ll see Asians eating here, and the waitstaff and cooks are all Asian-American. Big families (in all senses of the term) come and share meals here, and everyone seems happy and stuffed when they finally can get the waitress to come take their check and leave). Tea and water are constantly refilled, and the restaurant buzzes with activity. I would take this restaurant in a heartbeat over P. F. Chang’s. The food is much better and the place doesn’t try to be something it’s not.

Still MSG-laden, though. I really wish they’d change that. I think I’ll ask next time, but I have a feeling I don’t have a hope for the soup. They don’t have the meatball soups that Fortune Inn has, but there are two duck soups for Marx Brothers fans: Duck Noodle Soup and Duck Rice Noodle Soup (each $6.95) and Roast Duck (half $8.50, whole $17). The Dry Cooked String Beans ($8.95) aren’t as good as those at Fortune Inn, and if you ask for them to put pork in it, they will change the dish completely and give you wet-cooked ones in Pork with String Beans ($9.95), which isn’t nearly as good. They also have Singapore Noodles with various accoutrements ($7.95-9.50), decent American-style Kung Pao, and not-too-cloyingly sweet fried beef options like Szechuan beef (or is it Hunan beef? I forgot) ($11.95). There are also way sweet options for the Eugene crowd, such as Lemon CHicken ($9.95) and Honey Walnut Shrimp ($12.95), the latter a huge mound of shrimp and sugared walnuts which seemed even less appetizing when I saw a waitress sneak a walnut off the platter before serving it to the table. I guess that can happen anywhere, but still.

I often order the Chicken with Snow Peas (asking them to hold the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms) ($9.95) for a trip down memory lane, way back to that first Chinese restaurant in Michigan, for those velveted chicken breast slices and perky, very fresh peapods in the slightly colored, unctuous, fragrant sauce.

It could be worse.

the chinese new year chinese food massacre, or, eating chinese in eugene, Part I

This is the first part of my restaurant reviews of the best Eugene has to offer in Chinese restaurants: P. F. Chang’s, Fortune Inn, and Ocean Sky.

No, it’s not a pretty sight. Those with squeamish tummies should stop here and click away from the review, click away from the review.

I love Chinese food. Growing up, there was one Chinese restaurant in our town in Michigan, House of Lee, and I loved everything about it, from the exotic paintings of bridges and bamboo-hat-wearing people on the wall to the fried wonton pieces you could float in your hot-n-sour soup to chopsticks, which, as a picky eater who would meticulously remove onions and chunks of tomatoes from my meals, I found downright miraculous. It was much more efficient with chopsticks. Indeed, I went through a period in high school eating everything with chopsticks, just to see if I could. And my very first cookbook? The spiral-bound Time-Life Chinese cookery volume, circa 1969.

Living in the Bay Area irrevocably spoiled me for American-Chinese food, because actual, real, non-bamboo-hat-wearing Chinese people lived there. I gorged my way through my vegetarian college days at Berkeley eating every kind of stir-fried vegetable imaginable, and fell off the wagon eating dim sum (a felix culpa if I ever saw one). After college, I spent a month house-sitting on a small island in Hong Kong, and relied on the tiny market to make my suppers, resulting in odd combinations with dried orange peels, rambutan, cloud’s ear mushrooms, gourds and eggplant. It was still delicious, every last bit.

Because I’m an example of how a white-bread/bred palate can adjust to and love more authentic Chinese food, and I’ve seen how simple it is to make cost-effective, better-than-sweet-n-sour Chinese food, I am baffled and disappointed that Eugene doesn’t have one amazingly good Chinese restaurant. Being a town of mostly white people, I understand why they cater to the American-Chinese style of cooking, and many overweight people, I understand why they cater to the Chinese buffet crowd, but honestly, there is a demand for a good, regional Chinese restaurant that aims for less sweet, gloopy sauces laden with cornstarch and MSG, and more crackly punchiness of szechuan pepper, chiles, and sour preserved vegetables. Eugene has the resources for these types of restaurants: we have three Asian markets (King’s on W. 11th, Yi Shen on Chambers, and my favorite, Sunrise on W. 29th).

Perhaps this desperation for good Chinese was what fueled the recent mania for the newly opened P. F. Chang’s in town. The P. F. in P. F. Chang’s is its founder, Paul Fleming, and Mr. Fleming has seen wild success in his theme eatery, with besotted white people lining up for hours for the privilege of eating mediocre American-Chinese food fancied up in rich decor with equally rich prices. The P. F. Chang’s in Eugene is so popular that some departments at the university even take their job candidates there, much to my shame.

My shame was even greater when I went there for lunch the other day, just so I could say I’ve been there. The menu contains many of the same items you can find in the Safeway Chinese food buffet at astronomical prices for the quality: Pepper Steak ($13), Beef with Broccoli ($12), Moo Goo Gai Pan ($13), Chang’s Spicy Chicken (“our version of General Chu’s”, $13), Chicken with Black Bean Sauce ($12.50), Sweet and Sour Pork ($12). They serve several of these in “Traditional Lunch Bowls” with a cup of soup for $7.50 – 9.50. The dishes are fancy and the portions are decent and the food is edible, I guess, if gloopy, sweetened, and full of MSG.

There is also a new grill menu which alleges it is an ancient Chinese secret, that is, if ancient China grilled ribeye steaks and crap with cheese on top, and unappetizing mini-desserts which only cost $2, but for which you have to suffer looking at carrot cake crammed into an oversized shot glass, frosting smearing down the sides, so it will be the same size as the puddings in the other glasses (or are those cake, too?). And cocktails. O the cocktails. Horrific combinations of everything that sounds vaguely Asian on the market, and then some. I can’t even.

A recent review of a sushi place in Eugene made a bold claim about the kind of service Eugeniuses demand:

The owners need to go to The Olive Garden or PF Changs to see what GREAT SERVICE is really like!!!

Um, no. No, no, no, and no.

As with many theme restaurants, excuse me, dining experiences, the P.F. Chang’s waitstaff has a ritual of asking you if you’ve been to P. F. Chang’s before. “No,” I replied brusquely, not wanting the spiel about my waiter’s favorite dishes or how exquisitely wonderful the next hour of my life would be, “but I’m ready to order.”

I opted for two dishes I usually like, the Dan-Dan Noodles ($10) and a small order ($3, versus $6 for the large) of the only thing that seemed really promising on the whole menu, the Spicy Green Beans with “Sichuan preserves, fiery chili sauce and garlic.” Then I asked for some tea, something simple, because I didn’t see regular Chinese tea on the menu of fruited, sweetened teas (Sweet Ginger Peach Decaf, Citrus Spice, etc., etc.) The waiter looked flummoxed and said the closest thing they had was “Organic Green: A slightly sweet Asian brew of three certified organic green teas.” I told him that I didn’t like sweet flavors, a theme I had to keep insisting during my meal at P. F. Chang’s, and asked if they had something like plain Oolong. Here, his eyes brightened: “oh yes, we do! You’ll love it! It’s my favorite!”

I know I’m going to sound like a total ass, but I don’t want to know some skinny, young white teenager’s favorite dishes at P. F. Chang’s.

A few minutes later, he plunked down a silly little iron pot of Dragon Eye Oolong (“Chinese Oolong with safflower, peach and apricot,” $2), which was unpleasantly fruity and perfumy, and became too sour and odorific to drink within 10 minutes.

Just before my noodles and beans arrived, the waiter came back, and with a flourish, he unveiled the special P. F. Chang’s Dumpling sauce, prepared tableside. He pointed out the little dishes and then dumped them all dscf6282.jpgtogether: sweetened (!) soy sauce, that nasty Chinese hot sweet mustard that comes in ketchup packages, vinegar (“for flavor!”), sweet chili sauce, and chili oil (“my favorite!”). I didn’t suppose it mattered that I didn’t order potstickers or anything else that might require such a sauce.

When the meal arrived, they had prepared a large beans instead of a small beans (for which I was generously comped, probably the only thing the service did correctly), and the waiter brought two bowls of rice, putatively because I had ordered two entrees. I could only manage to choke down a third of the noodles, which were ramen noodles with gloopy minced chicken, garlic and red pepper and garnished with a few sorry bean sprouts and cucumbers, no peanuts or sesame whatsoever, and about half of the green beans, which were too sweet but not bad tasting, especially since they had a kick.

I took the rest home, thinking my husband would eat them for dinner, but he was so repelled by the smell and sight of the congealed masses that he refrained. By that point, I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t eat the leftovers myself (a rare occurrence with even mediocre Chinese food), so I threw them away.

Now, to be fair, my husband did eat a dinner at P. F. Chang’s and he said the Chengdu Spiced Lamb ($14) was okay, but too sweet, and the Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Steam with Ginger (“Served over stir-fried shiitake mushrooms, bokchoy, tomatoes (?) and asparagus,” trendy fusion café-style, $18) was not bad. He can’t remember anything else he ate. I’ve heard people like the Chang’s Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps, perhaps because they are soothing?

Tums, frankly, was more soothing…and necessary.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I explore non-ridiculously expensive and pretentious American-style Chinese food options in Eugene.