dining niblets

(1) Whoever invented the term “niblets” is a marketing genius or a wizard or something.

(2)  Sushi-ya.  Try Sushi-no.  It opened a short while ago in the space formerly known as Misako on Willamette at 8th.  Poor quality — poor quality — tuna, soggy, tasteless and mushy.  The snapper, which I should have known was bad (given it was offered as a special with lemon and ginger) was almost dangerous.  I did like the Hawaii roll, and speaking as someone who is disgusted by most American kitchen-sink-type sushi rolls, this is high praise.  They keep that one simple, with tuna, chives, and hot peppers.  Wormy little bean sprout salad as a free starter, no thanks.  The food took forever to arrive and was disappointing when it did.  Young white men manning the sushi station: never a good sign.  Probably the worst sushi I’ve had in a very long time.

But a serious, serious problem, and one I can’t believe no health inspector has noticed, is that the sushi is served on old wooden boards that were once food-grade, but now the varnish is peeling from the corners and the wood has cracked.  We ate from one with a big hairline crack down the middle, and another one that had two significant flaws in the wood — the knots and divots that create pretty patterns on your hardwood floors, but a health hazard when on service items in a commercial kitchen.  And one featuring SUSHI?  Ugh. Two wasabi-green thumbs down.  (No, the picture isn’t the board we ate on.  It’s a used BBQ cedar plank from our woodpile.  But evocative, no?)

(3)  And a delight, for balance.  The late-night Lebanese hummus plate at Café Soriah.  Simple, fresh sliced broiled lamb, seasoned with mint and sumac, atop a big mound of delicious, creamy hummus, with pretty green marinated olives and some hot pink pickled onions on the side.  Want.

(4)  And oh heck, more delight.  Ish.  The prosciutto and fresh arugula pizza at La Perla.  The restaurant itself could use some fine tuning, but the pizza oven rocks.  The first night we went was during the Olympic Trials, and we were seated on the south side of the pizzeria, which is acoustically flawed (I fear for good) and we could hear the other tables better than our own dinner companions.  The second time was much better, with fewer kids running around and more adult noise levels on the north side.   The service was less snotty Barbie doll high school girl with attitude, too.  (Jesus, give me a fuckin’ BREAK.)

Eschew the expensive, prepackaged desserts and the pedestrian salads, and get your pizza topped with a big handful of arugula leaves.  Do salad like the Italians do.  Well, pick off the bruised and yellowing arugula leaves (La Perla, shame on you), then do it like the Italians do.  The peppery, greeny, crunchy arugula is a perfect match, dare I say synergy, with the cheese and the salty prosciutto and the blackened bits on the pizza dough.  I’ve been looking for a pizza like this since my trip to Italy in 2002.  Yum.

(5)  The laab beef salad at Aiyara Café in Springfield (in a sad little strip mall at Harlow Road and Gateway).  Finally, a Thai restaurant in the area that doesn’t over-sugar its food, gah.  This is one of my favorite Thai dishes, featuring rare beef slices, mint, cilantro, onions and fresh lettuce, tomato and cucumbers in sour and spicy lime dressing texturized with roasted rice powder, and Aiyara makes it well.

(6)  From another car on the arugula train, Midtown Bistro‘s bacon, arugula and tomato sandwich with homemade mayo is really quite delicious.  Thick, chewy bacon, great bread, and a summer tomato —  ah, I’m drooling just thinking about it.  Take a hint from me and order a green salad on the side, though, to supplement the skimpy serving of arugula on the sandwich.  Or just tell them to add more.  I guess you could be less passive-aggressive.

(7)  Belly.  I haven’t been.  But a little bird told me very good things.

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.

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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.