When going to lunch with a James Beard award winner, it’s best to let them choose the venue.
Such was the case when I had lunch with Rachel Wharton last week. I first met Rachel years ago when she profiled me for The Daily News and we ate lunch at S’Agapo in Queens. I thought Rachel was one of the quirkiest and most spirited food writers I’d ever met and also one of the hardest working. Now her hard work has paid off: she won the 2010 James Beard award for her “Back of the House” columns that appear in Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, beating out luminaries like Colman Andrews and Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl in the food-related column category.
Which is all to say that Rachel really was the one to choose where we’d eat lunch when the lunch date we’d planned arrived last week. I pitched Chinatown and sure enough Rachel came back with a James Beard Award-worthy response: “Excellent Pork Chop House.”
Excellent Pork Chop House is located at 3 Doyers Street, which means it’s deep in the bowels of this exotic and energetic part of the city. Going to Chinatown is always a transportive experience: as I walked to the restaurant, I really tried to imagine that I wasn’t in New York, that I was really in China (or a New Yorkified version of China). And it wasn’t that hard: with all the ducks hanging in the window, people speaking the language, and bicyclists whizzing by, I had that feeling you get when you find yourself in a foreign country and you look all around you and marvel at how different it all feels. The difference is, this transportive experience cost me a $2.25 subway ticket, not a $2000 ticket to go around the world.
When Rachel arrived (and you can’t miss her with her shock of red hair, her big glasses and her freckles) I let her get to work on the menu:
The menu had big pictures for gringos like us. But we didn’t order like gringos: Rachel homed in on an authentic bowl of pickled cabbage and pork noodle soup with silver noodles:
As you can see, that would also come with a pork chop.
Rachel also ordered us rice cakes with shrimp (“It’ll be carbtastic,” she assured me.)
Pretty quickly, the food came. Actually the pork chop came first:
I was a little frightened, at first, when the waitress set the plate down. Where did this pork come from? How can it only cost $2.50 on the menu? Will Michael Pollan slap me on the wrist for eating something that was probably tortured in an industrial warehouse? (Side note: I’d love for Michael Pollan to address how eating ethically sometimes doesn’t allow you to eat ethnically. Discuss.)
Well, all my fears were for naught—it tasted great. Caramelized on the outside with a hint of five-spice powder, this was moist, tender and well-seasoned. A truly excellent pork chop, indeed.
Then came the noodles:
Those James Beard folks know what they’re doing: Rachel picked a winner.
The acidic kick of the pickled cabbage played beautifully off the pork, and the noodles were skinny and very slurp-worthy. Neither of us were embarrassed to slurp with glee. (And by glee I mean the cast of “Glee” was with us at the table.)
Then the rice cakes arrived:
This was unlike anything I’d ever had before. The whole thing had a lovely mutedness about it; it didn’t hit you over the head with flavor, it was just a nice balance of greens, shrimp and chewy rice cakes. It was calming and subtle and very, very satisfying. Here’s Rachel digging into hers (you can see me taking the picture in the mirror):
We chewed and chatted and had a very good time indeed. She explained the difference between Marion Nestle and Nina Planck. And then the check came:
Can you believe it–all that food (a pork chop, a big bowl of noodles with pork and a big plate of rice cakes with shrimp)–for $10.75? That’s the steal of the century.
So thanks to Rachel for choosing such a winning place. Though being such a winner herself, I’m sure it wasn’t very hard to do.