A revelation in Chinese cooking.
By Stefanie Gans
Go quickly to Peter Chang China Cafe. The chef—famed as much for his gorgeous food as for fleeing restaurants across the South—opened his eponymous Chinese restaurant in a strip mall north of downtown Fredericksburg in May.
The flavors have stayed put in the few months I have eaten at Chang’s restaurants, first at China Grill outside of Richmond in Glen Allen and then in Fredericksburg. I am late to the Chang game. I am a convert.
On the way to Fredericksburg—the three hours it took to slog down 95 from Alexandria one Saturday—I conned my friend into driving. I told her I’d entertain. Road trips usually require snacks, but when you’re driving to eat, other sustenance is necessary. I read her stories of Chang. Both The New Yorker and Oxford American ran articles devoted to the fandom of Chang in the March 2010 issues. I printed both out, including another from Garden & Gun’s first issue of 2013.
“I feel like we’re going to eat Jesus’ food,” my friend said after I read aloud the devotion, the hysteria, the obsession that is the cult of Chef Peter Chang.
Chang first started cooking in this country at the Chinese Embassy. And from there, he’s remained in the United States. He’s cooked in Fairfax (China Star), Alexandria (TemptAsia Cafe), again in Fairfax (Szechuan Boy), then Marietta, Ga. (Tasty China), Knoxville, Tenn. (Hong Kong House) and back to Virginia—first in Charlottesville (Peter Chang China Grill), Richmond (Peter Chang China Grill), Williamsburg (Peter Chang China Cafe) and now Fredericksburg (Peter Chang China Cafe), with all four Virginia locations currently open, serving mostly the same menu. General Lee, owner of the Chang restaurants, and “Peter’s babysitter,” will open a location in Virginia Beach by late November and is looking for space in Alexandria and Fairfax.
It’s not that working at multiple restaurants in a short span is unusual, it’s the speed in which Chang changed locations, and also the way it happened. He left without notice. He left quickly. He left in a way that seemed to haunt his followers. But Lee makes it clear this time is different: “If you made a half-million dollars a year, would you disappear?”
After eating Chang’s food, I’m not convinced the chase was the reason many became enamored with the chef. While the hunt, as any guide on romance will confirm, intoxicates, it is the beauty of the food that mesmerizes his devotees. It is the way fresh cilantro pairs with dried chilies and scallions, garnishing strands of tofu skin that become fettuccine. Silky, fresh, clean, dressed in searing heat. It is Chang’s wife Lisa’s recipe. Mary Lee, the general manager and General Lee’s wife, describes the process: when boiling soy beans, the skin rises to the surface, “like a piece of paper.” It dries, and when ordered, soaks in water to soften, and is then sliced and sauced.
But the heat isn’t everything, although heat junkies will be pleased. It’s the surprise of cumin-scented fish in a Chinese restaurant, located in a strip mall complex so large it can support both a Target and a Wal-Mart. The space in both Fredericksburg and Richmond feels completely ordinary—this is not fine dining, nor cheap eats—but it doesn’t actually matter. The way Chang manipulates fried fish into something that you could spread on cracker is what matters. The bamboo fish, an acclaimed staple in the chef’s armoire, rules the menu. It looks like fried fish—like fish and chips—but the texture feels as though the kitchen poached the fish in oil. (It is actually deep fried for 30 seconds, then placed in a dry wok, removing excess oil). The dish is a food writing cliché: It melts in your mouth. It arrives, as many dishes here do, with the cilantro-chili-scallion garnish and no sauce, unlike many American-Chinese dishes drowning in cornstarch-thickened gravy.
Not everything lives in hyperbole. A tea-smoked duck is dry, although abundantly smoky, and pork dumplings (T17 on the weekend dim sum menu) reveal a tough ball of pig. Misses are few.
Crispy pork belly turns into pork rinds, strips of pig so savory that it no longer tastes like pork. It tastes like everything, which is what we also thought about a red broth that carried orbs of fish, blended with tofu, as tender as matzah balls. The dish is not on the Fredericksburg menu, but when Chang is in the kitchen—as he ensures the stability of his newest restaurant—guests can request it.
When we could eat no more, even after paying the check, we continued slipping spoons into the broth, trying to figure out what was in there—and why we couldn’t stop.
“We’re basically drinking oil,” I said of the concoction of chicken broth and sesame and chili oils, but tasting like an algorithm of flavors Will Hunting couldn’t solve.
“Pretty much,” my friend said back. And we dipped our spoons in the oil again. And again.
Peter Chang China Cafe
Order the bamboo fish. Enjoy.
Appetizers: $3 – 12; Entrée: $9 – 20.
Daily for lunch and dinner.
1771 Carl D Silver Pkwy, Fredericksburg