Posted on May 13th, 2012
I don’t remember when I went to Mao’s Kitchen in Venice Beach for the first time. It might have been during college or just after. I’ve probably only been once or twice since, because I never lived closer than 300 miles away from it, but that’s not really important. What is important is that on that first visit, either with my brother or friends who moved to LA for grad school, I ate some life-changing green beans.
It’s my understanding that Mao’s serves “Chinese country-style cooking” with something referred to as “red memories.” That probably means lots of vegetables, because The Chairman oversaw some pretty lean times. Red or not, these green beans definitely smacked of the countryside. They were simply prepared, seared to the point of blistering, patches of blackened skin blooming out of the grassy hue of taut, crisp vegetable flesh. Here and there a chip of red chili flake flamed away, flares in a sea of grease-spattered soy sauce.
Where I’m from, this is not how Chinese food looks. Take out spots in small town New England veer more toward Tso than Mao — the General, not the Chairman — a man who I can only guess made a name for himself with a campaign of horror waged against a population of unsuspecting chickens. On top of that, I’m Irish, which means that the green beans I grew up eating were boiled into limp, gray wands in an effort to subdue any unsavory, unpotato-like qualities inherent in their natural state. The flavors I encountered that night in L.A. were basic, but together they were far from recognizable to my palate. Smoke from the pan, garlic simmered in the kind of oil that doctors waggle their fingers at, soy, and a little heat, all stitched together seamlessly, like crisp new sheets on that old bed of veggies from my childhood.
The experience was brief, and I resisted the urge to order more for further inspection, returning to the meal and my friends. What followed was probably pretty good, and then we probably went out and got pretty sauced, because that’s sort of what I was doing then. So I forgot about those crunchy little soy-garlic-chili delights for a long time. Even if I had had my shit together back then, which I definitely didn’t, I wouldn’t have dared attempt the type of alchemy I assumed was involved in their preparation. I didn’t grow up around things sizzling over high heat in hand hammered pans, so I lacked even a basic frame of reference for how something so delicious could come to be — nevermind in my own kitchen.
It wasn’t like I could just call home and be like, “Hey Mom, how do I make some spicy green beans that don’t wilt flaccidly into a frown when lifted with a fork?” Corned beef? Mom would have had me covered. “Oh honey,” she’d say, wondering how I survive day-to-day in such a state of ineptitude, “you know how!” And I would, too — at least sort of, from all of those years of wiping my nose on her apron in the kitchen. But I seriously doubt that at this very moment there is any soy sauce in my parents’ house. Or garlic. Or a wok. Or any of the rest of the shit that you need to make dry fried green beans, because my mom is an Irish mom, not a Chinese mom. The special nook reserved for innateness in my brain, the place where acting comes before thinking, is not occupied by things like proper noodle slurping technique (nor by a chart that plots aioli whipping speed by barometric pressure, for that matter). Those details, the really important ones, are reserved for the kids who grow up in the tradition: Learning by osmosis, with the occasional elbow nudge or smack to the back of the head from mom, is a privilege and a potent recipe for the keeping of any flame.
For me, like most American kitchen geeks, just playing witness to all that goes unspoken when other people cook is almost enough. To go out and get the occasional glimpse, in a tiny plate of green beans or bit of braised something or other, takes some of the sting out of not growing up eating these things on a daily basis. Really tapping any given source would probably mean getting yourself adopted by someone else’s mom, which, unless you possess the foresight to marry strategically, is a long shot.
Had I not moved to San Francisco a couple of years later, the green beans would have ended up as just another morsel stuck in the teeth of my memory. Fortunately my chef buddy’s friends from work shared their obsession with the dry fried wings at a hole-in-the-wall place in the Inner Sunset. Being inclined to trust their instincts, I forded my way through three neighborhoods and found parking on a nondescript street. The place itself, which I think has since fallen prey to the steep local novelty/hipness curve, was unremarkable aside from its diminutive size and blaze orange walls. It was basically just a tiled room with an open kitchen at the back, and a few tables — sturdily built, as if to accommodate both the weight and gravity of the foodstuffs at hand. At the end of the day they could have literally hosed the place out if they wanted to, and it would have been no worse for the wear.
We got our mountain of wings like everyone else in the joint, but someone had slipped in a little something extra on the order. There they were again; a small bowl of lovingly burnt green beans, kicking back in a shallow pool of soy sauce. Salty and fiery from tip-to-tip — I was suddenly seeing through the sands of time, to Venice a few years earlier. Somewhere wind chimes rang, a sitar sounded a single, wringing note, and a hawk cried. Then I was back in San Francisco, just a few feet away from the kitchen that had birthed this delicious doppelganger into the world.
I decided there and then that this kitchen, with its open front and busy industrial innards, would be the surrogate mother I had wanted for without knowing. Every time I came in, I’d choose my seat carefully, sometimes jockeying awkwardly with friends to secure a direct line of sight. Back to the door, eyes on the rapid motions of the one-man line, a bus could have driven through the window of the restaurant and I wouldn’t have noticed. Trailing off mid-sentence, neck craned, furrowing my brow, and generally acting like a crazy person, I learned by watching, albeit from afar — a second-rate method for internalizing anything, but my only option.
Slowly, piece by piece, I put a rough approximation together: wok, oil (lots of it), super hot/borderline smoky, a handful of beans, a few flicks of the wrist, add garlic and shitloads of chili paste until the pan belches hot, caustic smoke like hell’s own breath, then blast with soy and plate steaming. I’m sure that the real deal is a lot more nuanced than that, but if you’re coughing at the end, feeling pretty certain that breathing chili oil will one day kill you, you’re pretty much there.
A few months before leaving the city, I moved into a new place with an old friend and a Chinese guy named Terry from Southern California. Terry and I didn’t share much in common, least of all in terms of a schedule, but on the odd night he’d be coming home late from work when I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. On one such night I had just finished quelling the fire alarms after blanketing the apartment with spicy, salty soy smoke and he came in. “Mmm,” he said, peering into the pan and pinching a blackened nub between his thumb and forefinger, “I could smell these from the street.” He popped it in his mouth, raised his eyebrows and didn’t slap me in the face for insulting his heritage: A good sign I guess, although I guess it’s his mom’s opinion that would really matter.