Simply the best
Best Chow Mein? Henri chooses Peter Chu’s
Chico, CA 95926
Henri found himself in the rather awkward position the other day of having to explain to his dear sister the recent “Best Of” issue in the very paper for which he writes. She seemed surprised at some of the winners.
“Chile’s for Best New Restaurant?” she asked. “How could it beat Priya, the new Indian place? “And Casa Ramos for Best Mexican?”
I shrugged. “Casa Ramos is OK.”
“I know,” Colette said, “but best of? Besides, it’s so … corporate. And you have these wonderful locally owned places. La Familia, Tacos Cortez ….”
I suggested that the voting might sometimes be more about name recognition than quality. “Like Men’s Wearhouse for Best Men’s Clothier,” I said. “They’d probably even beat Nordstrom’s or Brooks Brothers … if we had one.”
“Probably the commercials, huh?”
“I guarantee it.”
She scowled. “Very funny … you know what they should have a category for? Best Chow Mien.”
Henri loves most all of Chico’s Chinese restaurants, especially the garlic green beans at Turandot and the Mongolian beef at Chang Feng. But the house chow mien at Peter Chu’s—heavy on the cabbage, making it just slightly crunchy rather than soupy—is definitely the best. We headed over for take-out.
Generally—and oversimply—Chinese cuisine, as well as Chinese language, culture and much else, is divided into two groups, defined by the Yangtze River. Below the river: southern (Szechuan or Sichuan); above the river: northern (Mandarin).
Szechuan food is typically quite spicy, with red peppers used in many dishes. Meats, especially beef, are frequently stir fried with vegetables such as green beans and broccoli, as well as with tofu and peanuts. Food from the Hunan province, also in southern China, is typically even hotter, with many dishes using chili-based sauces, the stir-fried meats and fish often pre-seared and crispy.
While there is no Mandarin province or area of China—the word is apparently used primarily in the west—the food originated in Beijing (Peking), where chefs from throughout the area delivered their best dishes to the royal court, often in elaborate presentations with vegetables carved into ornate animals and flowers. Typically, Mandarin food is saltier than Szechuan and not as spicy. Classic dishes include Peking duck, Mongolian beef, mu-shu pork, pot stickers and various dumplings.
Peter Chu’s specializes in traditional Mandarin cuisine, although the restaurant also serves Szechuan dishes and inventive Chinese versions of foods from around the world, including Alaskan crab, Australian lobster and Canadian quail. The cooks pride themselves on fresh local vegetables whenever available and do not use MSG.
Peter Chu’s menu features a large variety of vegetable, meat and seafood dishes ($7.95-$16.95), as well as inclusive dinner specials ($12.95-$16.95 per person) for parties of two or more. The sizzling lobster (Chef’s Special) is $17.95.
Of course, we ordered the house chow mein ($7.55), which came with chicken, shrimp and beef. Colette insisted on broccoli in wine sauce ($7.95), and I chose the kung pao chicken. While we waited, I had a glass of house burgundy, which, while certainly no vintage Bordeaux, was actually quite drinkable, especially for the price ($2.50 a glass). Colette stepped next door to All the Best to rent a video.
When we got home, I opened a bottle of Prosperity Red—with its Chairman Mao-ish label it seemed appropriate—and while we ate we watched Rebecca. We boxed up what we couldn’t finish, and I padded off to bed, before the film even ended.
I woke up well before noon fantasizing about a breakfast of reheated chow mien. Unfortunately, Colette had beaten me to it. The little white box was crumpled up in the garbage. I had to settle for the kung pao chicken.
Which, I discovered, pairs excellently with a Bloody Mary.