New Orleans East: Kenilworth Mall, 6600 Morrison Rd. @ I-10.
Take a category of restaurants. Chances are pretty good that the currently-operating eateries of that kind are better than those of twenty or thirty years ago. But there are some exceptions. Grand French restaurants, for example, are much less appealing than they once were, because the whole category is moribund.
A more puzzling exception is Chinese restaurants. In general, they are not as good now as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. About a dozen Chinese places keep their standards high and keep improving. But for the most part, the food was better back then. The advent of Chinese buffets and take-out specialists has impoverished the cuisine. Even the sheer number of Chinese places is lower than it once was. In 1983, I had 104 Chinese eateries on my list. Now there are 79.
The textbook example of the slow regression in Chinese cooking around New Orleans is the Peking, a little family-owned restaurant in New Orleans East. It was in the Kenilworth Mall, a secondary shopping center whose greatest asset was a K&B drugstore. The Peking was in the next slot over, and benefited greatly from the K&B traffic.
The Peking had a pleasant but unexceptional dining environment, with about fifteen tables. But its food was incomparably better than the present average. If it were around today as it was during its ten-year run in the East, it would be among the top five Chinese kitchens in New Orleans. As it was back then.
Everybody has a favorite neighborhood Chinese place, and even though it was ten miles from where we lived, the Peking was ours. I remember learning about it from Bob Dabney, a fellow radio guy when we both worked at the old WGSO 1280 in the late 1970s. The Peking had just opened, but he was pulled in by the ten percent discount the place offered during its first month. (Good idea, that.) Beyond the value, Bob thought the food was exceptional. And it was.
The original owner was John Leung, a young man from Hong Kong who was not especially conversant in English, but who was so eager the please that you couldn’t help but like him. In addition to the new-restaurant discount, he always sent out a little extra appetizer. It wasn’t a restaurant critic special; he had no idea who I was.
It wasn’t long before my girlfriend and I were there every Sunday night. It was our place during a lovely romance that seemed to be leading to marriage. If it had gone that far, I would have asked John Leung to be one of my groomsmen. Then one day she went to the other team, as they say, and that was that. But I kept going back to the Peking anyway, rueful memories be damned.
John’s food was of purer composition than the deep-fried, filled-out-with-gravy-and-onions dishes that then and now dominate ordinary Chinese eateries. Certain dishes were the best of their kind locally. The fried dumplings, looking like Portuguese men-of-war with their stuffing of meat and herbs, were luscious with the peppery, garlicky, vinegar-sharpened dipping sauce.
The shrimp toast were never better than they were at the Peking: pyramids of minced shrimp piled up on thin sliced of bread and fried, served with a gingery plum sauce. We always began with a cup of the definitive hot and sour soup, a fine remedy for a cold and just plain good with pork, tofu, mushrooms, and egg curdles in a thick broth.
The Peking’s entree section was studded with dishes I had never encountered before. Peking chicken was white meat made into a loaf, fried with sesame seeds, and covered with a unique white sauce: superb. The whole fish with brown sauce came out as a study in crispness, covered with a spicy, chunky brown sauce. Ma’s bean curd–soft tofu with pork morsels and a sprinkling of red pepper–became a favorite Chinese dish for me because of how well John cooked it. Szechuan classics like chicken with red pepper and peanuts, stir-fried pork strings, and shrimp in hot garlic sauce were extraordinary.
I could go on about this for a long time. The sauteed shrimp Chinese style was just a big plate of stir-fried shrimp with a few peas. How was it so delicious? Moo-shu pork was superbly turned out, with a lightly gelatinous consistency and a fine flavor. The Peking duck was grandly served and a revelation to every friend who ever joined us at the Peking.
The Peking even made a great dessert of banana fritters in a lightly-sweet syrup.
After I wrote about the Peking a few times and talked about it on the radio, John figured out it was me sending him all this business. He tried to balance the scales, even though I told him there was no need. At Christmas in 1979 he gave me an Olivetti electric typewriter. The next year, my first microwave oven.
One Sunday evening, John told me that he was getting married. Then he and his wife had a baby. And one day he said they were leaving New Orleans, and had sold the Peking. This was all normal Chinese behavior, he assured me. (I’ve learned that’s true. Few first-generation Chinese people fall in love with their businesses, and buy and sell them with little or no sentimentality.)
The new owner was Kenny Cheung, whose English was less fluent than John’s. But Kenny was an even better cook, and the Peking only improved under his ownership. It was easy to see why. Kenny asked me to look at his kitchen one day, and I saw a large sink full of fresh shrimp he’d just peeled. “I buy everything fresh. Make everything myself,” he averred. “Even the pancakes for the moo shu.” (Which by then had become store-bought flour tortillas in most Chinese places.)
John must have told Kenny about the Christmas tradition, and despite all my protestations he kept up the gifts. A set of dining room table and chairs. A new desk. (I still have both.) The only way I could keep up with this escalating game was to keep raising the cash tip I left when I dined there. It was already well over 100 percent, but by the end of the year we were about square.
The day came for Kenny to move on. He left the restaurant bushiness behind in favor of a convenience store on the ground floor of the skyscraper across from the Superdome. My own office was around the corner, and I stopped in every now and then. We both reminisced about those fabulously thin, house-made moo-shu pancakes, and lamented the decline of local Chinese restaurants.
Meanwhile, the early promise of New Orleans East to become the new Metairie didn’t work out as planned. Businesses started closing in the late 1980s. The K&B in the Kenilworth Mall closed, along with almost everything else in the center. The Peking’s days were numbered. I haven’t had dumplings or ma-po bean curd as good since.