Save the Butterfly Shrimp!
"I can't wait until we go to Golden Gate," I told Janice. "I'm dying to have butterfly shrimp again. It's an endangered species."
"It is? Then I'm not eating it!" she said, adamantly. My conservationist friend had obviously taken my words literally and assumed that the butterfly shrimp was an exotic sea creature facing imminent extinction.
"It's the name of a dish," I assured her.
Butterfly shrimp is one of those classic Cantonese-American dishes of my youth. You hardly see it on Chinese restaurant menus any more, but about five years ago I developed a craving for the dish, a craving that went unsatisfied until December 7, 2008. Along with my butterfly shrimp craving I had developed a general, nostalgic craving for old-style Chinese-American food, a remembrance of things past sending me in search of time lost.
There are only a few places left in New York that serve the dishes that defined Chinese food in America up until the 1970s. The two most often mentioned when the subject arises are King Yum, a venerable Chinese-Polynesian tiki bar in Queens, and Golden Gate in Riverdale.
My chance to try Golden Gate finally arose when I went to Riverdale to see my friends Howard and Pat perform a Christmas program with the Riverdale Choral Society. Howard and Pat have been ordering takeout from Golden Gate for some years, but they'd never actually eaten in the restaurant. There was some bad news, Howard had warned me in advance. They had recently redesigned the place, so it no longer looked like a relic from the 'fifties. They added a sushi bar and broadened their menu to become pan-Asian. Fortunately, however, they retained a number of their old-school staples.
After the concert five of us went over to Golden Gate. I assiduously avoided all of the Asian-fusion and pseudo-Szechuan dishes and ordered a meal of mostly retro classics. For appetizers we had barbecued spare ribs and shrimp toast. I'd read that Golden Gate was one of the best places in the city for Chinese spare ribs, a favorite dish of my youth. Spare ribs were surely the most popular Chinese restaurant item among New York Jews for generations. Somehow the ribs must have been given a secret amnesty from kosher law, because countless Jews who kept kosher at home ate spare ribs at Chinese restaurants on Sundays and on Christmas Eve. Golden Gate's spare ribs were indeed great, and brought back memories of Joy Fong, the spare rib standard-bearer of my childhood. They were moist, meaty, lightly charred and slightly sweet. I don't know how many hundreds of Chinese spare ribs I consumed in my youth, but I don't think I ever even knew about Memphis, K.C. or St. Louis-style ribs until I was at least in my twenties. When you were Jewish in New York in the 'fifties and 'sixties spare ribs meant only one thing.
Shrimp toast is something I never really liked as a kid, but you never know when you're going to find it again and all of a sudden it seemed worth ordering. Surely this is a purely American invention. A paste of chopped shrimp, water chestnuts and egg is slathered onto slices of white bread, and the thing is deep fried.
Then came the main courses, of which, for me, butterfly shrimp was the centerpiece. As I remember it from my childhood, it consisted of large shrimps split lengthwise ("butterflied"), and the split side was coated with egg and bacon; it was served with a light sweet and sour sauce (not the really sticky kind) and onions. The version at Golden Gate was served more like an omelet: a mess of shrimp in a pancake of egg and bacon. It was so good! After all, what's not to like about shrimp and egg and bacon? Everybody at the table agreed it was wonderful. What a relief. You go around for years with a Jones for a dish based on a distant memory and odds are as good as not you're going to be disappointed. I wasn't disappointed.
I was hoping to order wor shew opp, pressed duck which is breaded and fried then braised with shredded vegetables, but it wasn't on the menu. Instead we had hong shu duck, which is almost the same thing. In fact, you could have given me the dish, told me it was wor shew opp, and I'd have been perfectly satisfied. It was heavy but good.
I don't think I saw moo goo gai pan, which in the old days was an "exotic" dish compared to chow mein and chop suey, on the menu. They do have shrimp with lobster sauce and egg foo yung, but I said no thanks to both. When I was a kid I didn't understand why they called it lobster sauce, because it had no lobster in it. Then I learned that it was the same sauce that was used for lobster Cantonese.
I broke with the nostalgia theme and ordered two things I never ate as a child. One of them is a dish that is apparently a Golden Gate specialty, lobster with burnt pork, which every review of the restaurant seems to have mentioned, and which is definitely worth mentioning again. It's a bit of a misnomer, as the minced pork is not burnt at all.
As Eric Asimov wrote in The Times:
Finally, the lobster with burnt pork ($22) arrived, looking and smelling as impressive as I had hoped. The lobster was cut into pieces, with mounds of ground pork heaped around, giving off an unmistakable burned waft. Yet the pork didn't taste burned at all. In fact, it was highly flavored, seared quickly in a wok to seal in the juiciness of the meat and well seasoned with a touch of sweetness. And the lobster was superb, moist and tender -- fried quickly and then, what, braised with the pork?
I asked the waiter, but the most he would reveal was that it was an old Cantonese recipe, which, he said, was available nowhere else.
I felt that we needed a green vegetable (a feeling I never had as a child), and I ordered the baby bok choy with Napa cabbage. This was the least satisfying item of the meal. The vegetables were limp and served in a sauce that was superfluous. Lightly sauteed with a little bit of garlic is the way to go with baby bok choy.
I had gone to Golden Gate on a nostalgia trip and really wasn't expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. The food was much better than I had expected. Back in the '70s I wouldn't have given this food the time of day. It was the old, inauthentic Chinese food that was being relegated to the dustbin of history by Szechuan and Hunan cuisine (or Americanized approximations thereof). Now that this food is nearly extinct, and now that the miserable childhood that accompanied this food has become little more than fodder for amusing anecdotes, I can enjoy it again. Sure it isn't "authentic" Chinese food, but now it can be celebrated as heritage American foodways!