Today was nasty day to walk in NYC. But being the food fiends my friends and I are, we braced the pelting rain to reach a remote noodle shop in Chinatown. At times we had to put our umbrellas in front of us to stay dry, but every minute or so a gust of wind would invert our umbrellas. By the time we reached the restaurant, our jeans were soaked and our shoes were practically two small swimming pools.
My palette cringed. My insides screamed, “No more!” My palette writhed in pain. Eating dim sum at Asian Palace in Covington Pike certainly was more difficult than I anticipated. In the beginning I walked in with my head high ready to try anything placed in front of me. I left with a roaring stomach and intense desire to find the nearest restroom clean enough to sustain what I was ready to do. I usually don’t venture out into such a shady part of town for Chinese food but my mom and I were meeting my grandmother, Aunt Mae, and several of her friends. Asian Palace was once the premiere Chinese restaurant in Memphis. No Chinese couple dared to get married and not throw a dinner at Asian Palace. Back then, it was THE place and a hoppin’ one at that.
We walked through the front door passed a giant golden Bhudha statue “raising the roof” with his hands and into a quiet, dimly lit dining room. The room once packed with bustling waiters and demanding customers had lost the bright red aura it exuberated in the old days, and only a few scattered customers gave the waiters something to do. We sat down, asked for a plate that didn’t have food crusted on the edges, and began ordering what would be a slew of disappointing dishes.
Because this was dim sum (traditional Chinese cuisine in which small portions of a variety of foods are served in succession), the food arrived within minutes. Until this point I had forgotten how dangerous it was eating with my grandmother and other old Chinese women. If I weren’t allergic to shellfish, eating with them wouldn’t be so dangerous but as it was, I suddenly found myself playing a game of “Chinese Roulette.” “Here, you like this,” my grandmother said as she put some sort of biscuit on my plate. I opened it up to peak inside and check for shrimp and immediately noticed something resembling shrimp. “Is there shrimp in here? What’s that?” I asked. For a good three minutes, the table debated, in broken English mind you, if shrimp was inside. Aunt Mae said shrimp aren’t in these type of rolls, the waitress, in very bad broken English, said that there was shrimp, then that there wasn’t, then that there was, while my grandmother said there wasn’t. I decided not to eat the controversial biscuit and took a sip of my Sprite, which I knew was safe. In addition to not knowing what was in nearly all of the dishes, I had to overlook the fact that everyone was using their chopsticks instead of the serving spoons to dish out their own portions. The germs! The potential cross-contamination with the shrimp on their plates!
The mysterious “biscuit” wasn’t my only strange encounter. As the lazy-susan circled around the table, a small bowl of greasy, fried items grabbed my attention. “What that?” I asked Aunt Mae’s daughter. “You can’t tell that’s chicken feet?” she snapped. Embracing the foodie within I stabbed a piece and slung it on my plate. Both the daughter and my mother looked horrified. Ignoring their stares, I picked up the foot, and slowly moved forward for a taste. The claws dangled lifelessly in front of me as I nibbled from one side. I cannot fully describe for you what I tasted, but I can confidently say I didn’t like it. And by didn’t like it I mean I gagged. There was a strange, “Chinese-y” taste that didn’t seem normal. I encountered this mysterious flavor a second time when I tried the fried taro root. I almost threw up a third time when I tried a mysterious pork/cabbage wrap. I thought I was bound to upchuck if I kept acting like Andrew Zimmerman, the host of Bizarre Foods, so I waited for the Peking duck and chow fun. The duck was a disappointment as it was overcooked and flavorless. The chow fun with beef though was excellent and tasted of seared goodness that only a wok can give.
Dim sum at Asian Palace was certainly memorable but not in an appetizing way. Once in the car I asked my mom, “So what about that taro root? Does it usually taste that way? Same for the cabbage/pork wrap?” My mother responded, “I’m pretty sure all of that food was ruined, especially the taro root. It tasted spoiled to me.” Mildly pleased that my inexperience wasn’t the reason for my failed attempt at bravery, I reached into my mom’s purse and popped a mint into my mouth.