Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Lo Mein Incident?"

I have an obsession with things I loved from childhood. Part of it is wanting to remember what excited me as a child. Before I became tired and old and jaded. Remembering things I was passionate about as a child helps to inform what I do as an adult.

Do you have a favorite dish from childhood that you haven't been able to find or replicate in the years since? For one reason or another, I had this discussion with a few different friends over the past few weeks.

For me, it's this very specific Chinese fast-food Lo Mein. Yes, NYC has an embarrassment of quickie Chinese joints, and high end Chinese joints, and everything in between... but there was a unique balance to this version of the Chinese fast-food staple that I have not been able to find everywhere. The egg noodles weren't too thick. The sauce wasn't too overbearing. All the other usual components—pork, cabbage, onions, carrots—fell in line just right. Words fail me slightly in trying to describe this dish but it was simply perfect to my child palate. It introduced me to Lo Mein and all other versions I've had since—no matter how technically "superior"—have paled in comparison.

In the early 80s, when my family lived in the boondocks of Brooklyn ("Starrett City"), we used to go to the Kings Plaza Mall...

Back then, they had little moving window displays beneath the escalators—whimsical scenes, like the kind people line up to see at the 34th Street MACY*S around the holidays. There was an Orange Julius and a little place that served sweet crepes. And an arcade where Kung-Fu Master became an instant sensation. This was before malls became completely homogenized. No food court. Eateries were scattershot all over the place. This is where my sister and I were introduced to "Chinese food". At this cheap little joint right next to the arcade.

It was always the same. My sis ordered the Egg Foo Young (a monstrous-looking abomination that I steered clear of) and I ordered the Lo Mein. It was always just the way I wanted it be.

We moved up to Rockland eventually. A few years passed and I ended up finding that specific Lo Mein again in the food court of the Paramus Park Mall. Again, hard to put into words, but I just knew that it was the same dish that I remembered fondly from the Kings Plaza Mall.

Then I went to college. My family broke up and moved as far away from each other as possible. Rarely went to Rockland anymore, or Paramus, and forget about Kings Plaza.

What was it about that dish, though? It was a mystery.

Since I got to thinking about it again recently, I figured that nothing solves a mystery like the internet.

I did a GOOGLE search on the Kings Plaza Mall and the Paramus Park Mall...

According to YELP, the Kings Plaza Mall has seriously gone to pot in the years since my childhood. And there's no easy way to reach it via public transportation. On the other hand, the Paramus Park Mall is accessible via NJ Transit Bus. But what were the odds that they'd still be serving the same Lo Mein dish I remembered from childhood...?

The other thing I found through the searches was that both places had a Chinese fast-food joint. And they were both called the same thing:

"Master Wok"

They had to be connected.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011. After the morning routine at the gym, I hopped a bus at Port Authority...

An hour and a half later, I had returned to childhood.

Unlike some other malls that have gone downhill over the years, Paramus Park seemed remarkably well-preserved. Filled with some new chains and attractions, of course, but the dimensions and look and layout reminded me of all the times I'd gone there as a kid.

Even the restrooms were immaculate. Can't speak for the women's room, but the men's room at least. They even had these separate "Family Restrooms" set aside—I assume for the Mormons.

Anticipation built as I approached the crappy looking "Master Wok" in the food court. I was shocked that there weren't long, snaking lines like you'd find at SHAKE SHACK. Were people not aware that this was my Chinese fast-food mecca? How I'd suffered the circuitous bus route from New York City to get to this pile of dirt in New Jersey, with the dim hope of recapturing some elusive sense-memory from my sad, sad childhood...??

I waited behind a mall security guard as he ordered his meal. There was no sense of excitement as he placed his order of fried rice and BBQ chicken. For him, this was not an event. He had certainly not traveled out of his way to visit this shitty Chinese food outfit. This was merely the cheapest, least offensive alternative that was available to him on his lunch break.

Unaffected by approximately EVERYONE'S APATHY, I placed my order for the Lo Mein...

A plain vegetable Lo Mein. In my memory, this was a traditional pork Lo Mein. And the noodles didn't look the same. Oh, but petty details...

I had the woman throw some chicken on top of it. An eggroll for good measure.

As I paid for the meal and carried my tray to one of many vacant tables in the food court, the smell of the dish was already bringing me back like a time machine. This was it. This had to be it. The thing from my childhood that I hadn't been able to find for years. The thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is.

I dove into it...

And it was...




... close.

Christ, it was so close. It just wasn't quite *it*. Certainly wasn't a dish I would hop another bus to Jersey for in the future.

How could this be? If it had been something else entirely I might understand it, but it was more peculiar because it was close. As if they had gradually, incrementally altered and cheapened the recipe in the intervening years.

It was close but not it. Goodbye, childhood memory. Goodbye to that thing that you may never find again.

The bus back to Manhattan arrived late and traffic turned the trip home into a 2+ hour odyssey. I caught up on some THIS AMERICAN LIFE podcasts and reflected on how profoundly unproductive the day had been. What a long way to go for so little payoff. Seems like a theme for me.

At least I'd get a blog entry out of it.


Blogger Nick Gaffney said...

Sort of proustian...

(Maybe I should go read some Proust now.)

11/10/2011 12:29:00 PM  

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