Tasting China The Way Peter Chang Intended

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

Well, it felt that way as I drove alone, into the deep country dark of 29 North, heading for the place I used to call home. But I knew, as I put distance between where I was going and where I had been, the fulcrum that balanced my appetites, my bearings and possibly my sanity had been permanently put asunder. That a destination had been forever elevated to a point of depature, a siren song that would assail my ears and lure me back again and…

Well, not necessarily.

But having drunk deeply from the broth of the gods, and, filled with that savory and soul-affirming stuff, I could never possibly look at the world the same…

Okay, not exactly.

But I had eaten a meal from a menu designed by a man that some seem to worship, and others have treated like a holy pilgrimage, travelling great distances not unlike those three sojourners followed the brightest star, which guided them through the desert to a manger on that cold night over two centuries…

Well, you get the picture.

I had come to Charlottesville to visit my boy Jamey, the genius behind Barlow Brewing (and I don’t throw that word around lightly: this guy makes homebrews like nobody’s business; so much so that I want it to become his business and I can buy his beers, all the time, in support of his eventual, inevitable empire), and, in his blessed company, eat, drink and be merry. There was some drinking and merriment, but after we got around to eating, that was all she wrote. All that was left, after that meal, was surviving.

I’ve heard, and been guilty of using, the banal expression “food coma” before, and while I’ve stuffed myself beyond what I figured was a reasonable capacity on a couple of occasions, I’d never really had any firsthand experience with what some people must be talking about when they talk about food comas. For starters, I ate more than my fill; we all did. I ate the way an indulged golden retriever will scarf down snausages so long as an irresponsible owner continues making them available. (I don’t want to shoehorn, or belabor the implicit Pavlovian metaphor, but there is no question that, after only one meal, I am confident Chef Chang could make me salivate on command as soon as I smelled whatever he was tossing inside his magic wok.) You think I’m kidding? Get a load of this appetizer:

Oh, did I mention that I was eating at Taste of China?

Where? You may have heard of it. No, really. This place, and especially its enigmatic rock star chef Peter Chang, have been the subject of recent features in The Oxford American (by brilliant food critic Todd Kliman) as well as a slightly popular publication called The New Yorker (by Calvin Trillin).

I wish I could say I discerned an awkward tension in the air, a sense of urgency muted by ambivalence: a sort of preemptive resignation that the chef, the great man who had made these crowds flock to an unassuming strip mall on the first warm Saturday of the year (following the longest and most brutal winter most folks can recall ever having suffered through and who would, under any other circumstances, be grilling out or sunbathing or washing their cars or scooping dog shit in their backyards —anything so long as they were outside soaking in this sublime air) was about to do what he always does. Leave.

But the reality was that it looked like exactly what it was: an extremely busy restaurant during dinner service. No more and no less. But there was an electricity in the air; the type of heat that is generated when a particular event is lit by the combined buzz of hope and expectation. Everyone in the restaurant was aware of it: looking at each other, looking at the plates in front of them and especially on other tables, looking at the wait staff gliding and humming through the maze of tables like tuxedoed worker bees, looking toward the kitchen door at the back of the room to see if perhaps he would make an appearance. This was the kind of vibe that people in urban hot spots crave and people who can only read about them covet. This must be what it’s like to secure a reservation at a hot new club in New York City, except for the refreshing lack of hipsters, posers and the fat-walleted fuckwads who cash in their souls for cachet, all out of a sybaritic impulse to separate themselves from the hoi polloi.

Well, let’s keep it real: how many people (like myself) were here because they read about it and knew they had to come here? Certainly, there were more than a fair share of folks who just reckoned this was the hip (but not hipster!) place in which to add a notch to their culinary belts. But any venue, in any town, is going to inexorably attract the remoras who want to latch on to cultural shark. Bottom line: Taste of China is located in a fucking strip mall! That’s called keeping it real ’til it flatlines.

Back to that food coma. We ate, and ate, and we ate some more. If they had kept bringing food, we would have packed it in until we crumbled out of our chairs. And then we would have fallen on all fours and lapped it up like the aforementioned golden retriever. You’ll notice I’m not talking about the actual dishes or what they tasted like. For a sense of how good the food is, and the types of flavors and surprises it combines, check out the Kliman article: it’s a fantastic piece of journalism and Kliman is a more than capable food critic. I will say that while I’m unabashed about going deep as often as I can afford to (financially and gastronomically), most of my previous experiences ill-prepared me for the explosion of competing and, at first, discordant sensations this meal contained. That appetizer, pictured above, had a heat that numbed the lips, setting the tone for the spices to fight it out with the sweetly flavored slices of chicken: it was like lighting a match under an icicle. Suffice it to say, it was the type of (exceedingly rare) meal where you are already mentally recalling which items from the menu you will need to try next time, and the time after. But mostly you are transfixed by what is happening around you and inside you.

And then it’s over. You don’t linger; in part because you are able to see the line extending out the door, and mostly because once it looks like you’re done, the wait staff lets you know you’re done. They may have filled my water glass three times in an hour but they came back to see if we’d eaten our last bites five or six times. “We get the picture,” we would have said if our insensate tongues could form the words. Getting to the front door was a combination of concentrated effort (it was difficult to walk) and amusement (looking at all the eager faces of imminent diners who could read their futures in the strands of sweat dropping from my steaming dome). Getting to the car was a commitment. Thinking about following this meal with the beers we intended to drink was, inconceivably, inconceivable. And, being in a college town, we gave it the old college try. It wasn’t happening. Barlow The Brewer and I could barely finish our post-meal pints, and that has to be a first in our collective life stories. The only thing left was to call it a night and make the long, lonely drive back to the Chang-less city I call home.

Even as I sent the obligatory message, ruminating about available weekends for subsequent road trips, I had a feeling (based mostly on Chang’s notorious history, detailed in Kliman’s article) that he could not be long for C’Ville. A line out the door at 5:20 P.M. at an establishment without a bouncer means it has reached a tipping point. How long before Chang, compelled by his own internal mechanisms, or genuinely burnt out from a ceaseless crowd of insatiable clients, packed up his proverbial knives and went? How many more meals can I squeeze in, I wondered. Can we carry this dream through the end of summer?

Any questions?

Turns out my sense of urgency was well-warranted: Chang has left the building. We were there for his last shift.

This hurts. And, if you live in or around Charlottesville, it hurts you more than it does me. You missed your chance.

Or are you the lucky ones who will never have to wonder and worry if you’ll get another opportunity to have a meal that looks like this?

I am confident Chang and I will meet again.

Until then, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to taste China the way he intended.