Entering Peking Eastern House Restaurant, I noticed that half its clientele was Chinese and the other half was Pakistani and Afghan. There's a reason Fremont's South Asian community comes here, and it's not just because the food is good. It's also halal.
As its name suggests, the restaurant specializes in Beijing-style food -- specifically Chinese Muslim cuisine. The Hui people, Muslims from the northwest of China, make up a sizable, prominent ethnic minority in Beijing. Their kabob stalls, flatbreads, and hot pots can be found all over the city. Obviously, you'll find no pork on the menu but lots of beef and lamb, all prepared according to Islamic law (see "Kosher's Cousin, Halal," January 15).
Yet you can eat at Peking Eastern House Restaurant and never discover the tastes of Beijing. Yes, mu shu is typically northern Chinese, and sweet and sour supposedly comes from Shanghai. But if you stick with them you're missing the point. Tucked in amid the lemon chicken and kung pao beef are some interesting regional specialties.
To help me find my way around the menu on my first visit, I brought the foodies who first told me about Peking Eastern House. I let Leon and Lilly, who have traveled in Beijing and speak Mandarin, take over the ordering. The dish that immediately drew their eyes was an appetizer called "Chinese hamburger." These looked like big breaded hockey pucks: a thick disk of ground beef mixed with scallions, ginger, and soy sauce wrapped in a thin wheat-flour crepe and griddled on both sides. It tasted like a marvelous beef pot sticker, and needed no dipping sauce.
But before I struggled to eat the hamburger gracefully -- which definitely classifies as an advanced-level chopstick technique -- we followed Chinese tradition and started the meal with a cold dish followed by a soup. From the cold-plates section of the menu we picked "shredded chicken with green bean sheets." Wide glassine noodles made from bean starch were folded around shredded chicken and cucumbers in a savory, barely tart dressing of sesame paste, soy sauce, chopped raw garlic, and vinegar.
We passed over the soups on the menu when the server told us that one of the main courses we selected, "lamb with sour cabbage in Eastern pot," was actually a stew. A gargantuan stew -- we could barely finish half of the three-quart clay pot she delivered. The dish combined tiny cellophane noodles, fermented Chinese cabbage (think sauerkraut), and large chunks of tender lamb. The clear broth, tart from the cabbage, set off the lamb's gamy notes, and when I could scoop up a bit of cilantro floating on top, its flowery freshness brought a whiff of spring into the wintry dish.
We followed up the stew with a vegetable dish and a noodle. Not rice. Rice is a southern staple; the Northern Chinese prefer noodles, breads, and buns. In the chow mein section of the menu, Lilly discovered what must be the noodle's ancestor, a dish called "Eastern House fried pancake noodle." The cooks first rolled out and pan-fried a large wheat-flour pancake, which was almost as dry and dense as pasta dough, then hand-cut it into thick strips. These homey, chewy proto-noodles (a bit too chewy, said the experts at my table) were then stir-fried with beef, lily bud, and vegetables. Contrasting with the hearty peasant fare surrounding it was an elegant dish called "vegetarian yellow bird." Though the braised, mushroom-stuffed tofu-skin rolls looked like giant tortellini to me, I could see how more poetic minds would see a flock of golden songbirds curled up on a bed of steamed pea sprouts.
Leon and Lilly also looked over the Chinese menu for me. Amid the dozen or so breakfast dishes and ten-person banquets, they spied an item that set them reminiscing about their travels: Mongolian hot pot. A stainless-steel pot, shaped like a bundt pan with a fire in the middle, is filled with meaty, marrow-enriched broth. Diners are given slices of raw lamb, vegetables, and squid balls (optional) to cook in the broth and then dip in a sludgy, dense sesame-paste sauce. As the meal progresses, the broth dripping from the meats thins out the sauce; once the meat is gone, you ladle the leftover broth into the remains of the dipping sauce, swirl it around, and drink it as a soup. (It's known as shuan yangrou, in case you want to try it.)
I returned to Peking Eastern House Restaurant with a pack of cousins from Los Angeles. They weren't so hot on the idea of lamb hot pot, but we were determined to avoid kung pao and sweet and sour, so we attempted to pick out a suite of dishes that sounded like regional specialties. We received food that was good, sometimes great, but much more familiar.
This included the chicken chow mein that replaced steamed rice on our plates: My cousins couldn't stop eating the soft, chewy wheat noodles stir-fried with tender shredded chicken. With my obsession over getting enough greenery in my diet, I seemed to be the only one eating the Chinese cabbage and black mushrooms, which melted together in a mild sauce flavored by garlic and sesame oil. And despite its enticing premise -- two flavors on the same plate -- neither the spicy, sweet tomato sauce on one half of the Peking shrimp nor the nondescript clear sauce on the other half won the dish any fans.
We disemboweled a tinfoil swan to get at the "special beef" inside. It was tossed with Thai basil and onions in a delicately sweet sauce that tingled from a dab of chile oil. The "lamb with green onion" fit its description, smothered in thickly sliced scallion greens that had been oil-blanched to soften, brighten, and mellow them. Both red meats were sliced impossibly thin, yet remained tender.
Though I enjoyed my second meal, I left the restaurant more cranky than satisfied. The more I learn about regional Chinese cooking in the Bay Area, the more excited I get about its quality and variety -- and the more frustrated I get with its inaccessibility. Looking around, I saw that most of the Chinese diners had ordered plates of dumplings, noodle soups, and giant clay "Eastern" pots, into which they dipped wedges of a thick sesame-crusted bread (Lilly later informed me the bread is called zima dabing, but it doesn't show up on the English menu). The tables of non-Chinese diners were covered with stir-fried dishes and bowls of rice. Even though Peking Eastern doesn't split its menu offerings into Chinese versus tourist, it still takes a guide to figure out what the restaurant does best.
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