Greeting me at the door is Lily, as lovely as her name, pixie-like, with a quick smile and lively eyes. I imagine we'd have a good conversation if either of us spoke the other's language.
She shows me to the covered entryway where two elaborately carved wood and marble chairs overlook a modest paint-chipped fountain. It is quiet and protected, greatly incongruous with the vast parking lot outside. Lily offers a small white cup of loose jasmine tea with tiny flowers floating on top, so intoxicating I feel I've just entered a spa. I forget all about the six-lane highway I took to get here.
Chef Wen Tao Lu joins me by the fountain, sitting to the left of a 6-foot jolly Buddha. Lu's mug of tea is topped with enormous petals that evoke Monet's Water Lilies. I wonder how he avoids swallowing them. "Herb and flowers," he explains. "Good if people have internal heat, sometimes itchy eyes."
His tea, however medicinal, evidently can't erase the reality of the road outside. "Because, you know, we are in a bad location," says Lu. "We come here [to North Carolina], we don't know." Red Palace, which Lu purchased in 2005, is in a half-abandoned Raleigh strip mall called Beacon Plaza, which is not "bad" as in "dangerous": only desolate and off the beaten path, or rather too much on the beaten path.
This part of New Bern Avenue is also U.S. Highway 64, the high-speed concrete connection to Knightdale and Zebulon. It is an acceptable spot for a take-out joint or fast food restaurant, but the cuisine at Red Palace is better enjoyed with friends, around a big table, where you can ooh and aah over your crisp salt-and-pepper shrimp and laugh in unison when a spicy pork dumpling slips out of your chopsticks and splashes into the garlic soy.
It is fortunate, then, that Lu, 39, has been discovered by Triangle chowhounds.
"A lot of people come out here, like chefs, or restaurant owners," he says. "People come here, they drive a long way—they know it's different. A lot of chefs, they sometimes have a party, 30 or 40 people, they say, 'Hey, Lu, you just do what you want. No limit, no price.'"
Lu and Lily, his wife, are not modest about his cult following. On the restaurant's front glass panel they've pasted up sweetly childlike block letters to advertise the recent accolades from the The News & Observer, which in January 2007 named Red Palace one of the Triangle's Top 25 Places to Eat. They've also slipped under each glass tabletop a copy of a 2004 article raving about the restaurant's Peking duck. And why not? If you're handicapped by location, use all the marketing tools at hand.
One of the chefs who has come to admire Red Palace is Giorgios Bakatsias, the longtime Triangle restaurateur and the subject of last month's Food Chain. He first heard of it via a friend, and drives to Raleigh just for lunch. "It's really off-the-wall Chinese food," says Bakatsias, an inveterate traveler who has tasted street food all over the world and considers Red Palace truly authentic. "I go there for various parts of the body you can't find anywhere else."
The fabulous six-page menu at Red Palace offers an array of items like "beef & beef viscera combo," "shredded pork tripe in hot spicy sauce," "duck feet with mustard greens," "cold mixed jellyfish"—and that's only the appetizers. Skipping ahead a few pages to the more expensive items, you'll find that you can call ahead for family-style portions of "dumpling braised with fish stomach," "shark fin soup," "stir-fried duck tongue with basil" and "precious assorted meat."
That was just to get your attention. Not many readers will run to the ATM for the $88 fish stomach, but you should open your wallet, and now, for the divinely glutinous spicy pork dumplings, a generous plateful for $8.95, or the exquisitely seasoned, very lightly fried salt & pepper shrimp, a dozen for $13.95. The half-portion of tender tea-smoked duck, presented chopped, bone-in, with a layer of fat like a silver lining, will do for two, at $12.95, but if possible you should avoid sharing.
"China is so big that different areas have different food," explains Lu. "Cantonese style focuses more on the natural flavor, the food itself, local fish and seafood. It tastes more light. Sichuan [Szechuan] style is very spicy, more focused on the flavor, a very strong taste. The price is not that high, it's for normal people." Lu, after graduating in 1988 from the acclaimed Sichuan Culinary Academy, spent a decade as head chef and instructor at the five-star Grand Hotel in Sichuan Province's capital city of Chengdu. He speaks wistfully of his culinary students and seems to enjoy sharing his knowledge again.
Various sources cite Sichuan cuisine as having 2,000 to 5,000 recipes, which makes even Lu's menu look thin. The landlocked Sichuan Province, in central-west China, is home to nearly 100 million people. It is an agricultural heartland with mild weather, says Lu, very similar to North Carolina. "Sichuan has more humidity but not too much sunshine." Thus the region has been able to sustain human life for thousands of years, developing its own style of cuisine in the process, using complex, sometimes pungent, flavor to season everyday foods. A few hundred years ago, the chile was introduced into Sichuan cooking, and Chengdu has never been the same.
These days, when a Sichuan chef names a dish "Extra Hot and Spicy Chicken," don't doubt him (and have a couple of Tsing Tao beers handy). In this case, Lu's spice is the Sichuan pepper, commonly called "prickly ash." This tiny pod-like fruit, often mistaken for a chile, is slightly bigger than a peppercorn and unlike anything even hot-sauce junkies have tasted. There's a word in Chinese for it, ma, or "numbing spices." One single pod will briefly send a lemony heat across your tongue, then numb a two-inch section of your mouth for a quarter-hour. My physician husband, though briefly rendered speechless with his left salivary gland firing at random, spent the rest of the evening marveling on its potential as a local anesthetic.
Red Palace offers plenty of dishes, though, for those not inclined to extreme food sports. The "hot pot" is the most entertaining way to ease your way into Sichuan cuisine. Think of fondue, and then think again: This is much tastier, and feels healthier to boot. The round hot-pot tables are set for four or six people, with an approximately 3-quart soup pot, split into two parts, sunk into the center and lit underneath by a gas flame. It is wonderfully soothing to come in from the brisk autumn air and have your legs warmed by the ambient heat, two soups steaming quietly before you.
On one side of the hot pot divider is a mild chicken broth reminiscent of matzo-ball soup. On the other is a spicy beef broth. (If you truly abhor spicy food, you can substitute a Chinese herb soup.)
Within the hot pot menu, you may order individual items, like tofu, bean sprouts, scallops, sliced beef and shrimp; or simply order the combo meal, an affordable $15 per person, which includes beef, lamb, pork, tripe, chicken and fish on the meat platter and tofu, baby bok choy, black mushrooms and more on the vegetable platter.
Then begin cooking the food. The beef, lamb and pork are sliced so thin you need only wave them through the broth for about 30 seconds with your chopsticks. The fish and shrimp should be dropped into the broth and are ready when they pop to the surface. Dip them in the garlic sauce provided. Here's a hint: If everyone at the table is a meat-eater, cook your meat and fish first. It's nice from a food-safety standpoint, but most importantly it allows the meat juices to run off into the broth, leaving a perfect savory reservoir for your vegetables. (This must have been a method of survival cooking in lean times: Why let your valuable meat juices run off a grill when you could harness them in a soup?) After most of the meat has been cooked, drop a selection of veggies in the two broths, for maybe 2 to 3 minutes, along with the cilantro and leeks that garnish the meat platter. Then use your ladle to serve up the broth, and claim credit for your culinary wizardry.
In addition to the hot pot, Lu's menu has plenty of other wonderful tastes that aren't spicy, all between $9.95 and $16.95. If you crave pungent, try Lily's favorite dish, crispy fish with Sichuan garlic sauce (it's delectable). If it's sweet you're after, try the walnut shrimp, lightly fried and slightly caramelized without being cloying. If you are a salt fanatic, get the fried tofu: It's light and creamy and comes with a dipping bowl of toasted salt and pepper. (I was unable to determine if it's the famous Zigong-mined well salt, but it had a certain sulfuric appeal.) Finally, if you prefer something savory, try the black pepper beef sizzling plate with onions, the Chinese version of a steak fajita.
I often ask chefs, who themselves know food inside out, what was the most memorable meal of their lives. Most answer something from a vacation they took: in Provence, in Barcelona, on the Sea of Galilee. Some, like the food critic in the charming film Ratatouille, reminisce about a childhood meal their mother or aunt or grandmother cooked, with fish straight out of the sea or vegetables from the family garden.
Lu was raised in the late 1960s and early 1970s during China's cultural revolution in a four-story apartment building in Chengdu, sharing a kitchen with three or four other families. His parents worked in a military factory making missile parts for Mao's army. He learned to cook early, out of necessity, measuring this much water, this much rice. "It was kind of like a small city there. Growing up, when I was growing up in high school, we don't know the outside, just the small city. No people can come in." Their military association may have kept the family isolated, but it sometimes helped with resources during the food shortages.
Lu remembers cooking hot pots with his family, especially in wintertime.
"Chinese people ... like to focus on the food. It's kind of exciting in the spring festival. Only that time you can eat the chickens. Before, there's no way. There'd be no meat. I think when I was young, one month, [there was] maybe a half a pound of meat per person, not much, for months."
And thus his "most memorable meal" was simple, devastatingly so: "When I was little, there was the food shortage. My mom [went] to Shanghai for business and back, and [brought] a little can of pork. Oh, that was good. No meat for a long time.... I remember that one."
Last year, my editor and I decided to call this series "Food Chain." The concept was whimsical, if a little unsettling: We would let chefs pick their favorite restaurants and see where it led us.
I now see we should have called it "Around the World in 13 Months." By complete chance, the series took on an international flavor. Though we profiled a couple of Southerners, Californians and a Northerner, the other chefs were born in Thailand, Japan, Cuba, China, Greece, India, Mexico and Morocco. They've lived lives most of us have only read about: working in migrant camps; escaping Communist regimes; living hand-to-mouth; building restaurant empires, going bankrupt, building them again. In conversation, they mention Fidel, Mao, Deng, Indira; in their kitchens they offer platanos, mirin, hamachi, cardamom.
And yet here they are, here they have chosen to be, among the Blockbusters and Wal-Marts, down the road from the local barbecue shack, across from the Circle K.
Our Food Chain pick this month is the last in the series. Food Chain has done its job: expanded our borders (and waistlines) while identifying some of our best chefs, some of whom were already well known but many of whom had never before talked to a reporter. Taking a certain license to pun, I've joked throughout this series about biological imperatives, adaptation, survival of the fittest. But all jokes aside: Ask any scientist how to keep a population strong, and she'll say diversity. For our once-sleepy Southern towns to draw culinary talent truly from around the world, well, y'all, that's evolution. —Jane Hobson Snyder