Red Rides to Your Hood

But why is lemon chicken broken?

For such an incredibly swell metropolis, Oakland has one flaw — its irretrievably bad Chinese delivery food. We have no shortage of excellent Chinese restaurants and, unlike many cities, we boast a real Chinatown — not a Disneyfied version where busloads of gawking tourists take snapshots with their Funsavers of the dead poultry hanging in the windows.

But home delivery? Try another channel.

Maybe it’s because many of us turn weird with delivery food. You can have the most sophisticated palate when you’re strolling down 10th Street, but when it comes to food delivered piping-hot to the manse, you want it orange and sweet. Or honeyed and red. And deep-fried — don’t forget that part. When I peer into the little cardboard container, I don’t want a sea urchin staring up at me. I don’t want duck or anything pressed or soaked in tea. I’d prefer not to have quail eggs, or pheasants, or any business having to do with birds’ nests. I don’t want anything that’s been pickled for a thousand years. I want something sweet and sour and hot and spicy — but only moderately so, and I want it to come with little packages of Chinese mustard, soy sauce, fortune cookies, and chopsticks if I’m feeling dexterous.

But even by these standards, Oakland Chinese delivery food falls flat on its bright-orange face. Still, hope springs eternal. Hungry and tired people get out the Yellow Pages in search of egg rolls, chow mein, pot stickers, lemon chicken, and other take-out faves.

Speaking of lemon chicken — the worst part is that lemon chicken is broken. Lemon chicken should be deep-fried nuggets lovingly glazed in a dessert-like lemon sauce. See, it has all the ingredients of delivery food — it’s fried, it’s sweet, and it’s yellow (okay, it’s not orange or red, but it’s a warm hue achieved by food coloring). The delivery places in Oakland apparently had a meeting and decided to ruin this classic by putting the lemon sauce on the side. Perhaps they think we’re all on diets and would like the sauce in a separate container, like those lame people who order salad with the house vinaigrette in a little cup. Or maybe they think the chicken will get soggy by the time it arrives at your home. Would Mr. Pizza Man send over a box of cooked spaghetti with a jar of Ragu?

Another difficulty is that many Berkeley restaurants refuse to deliver to Oakland. Maybe the restaurants over in enemy territory have really good hot and sour soup, but we Oaklanders will never know, unless we drive over there, which defeats the purpose of delivery Chinese. We should all live in Emeryville, because this kingdom reaps the rewards of neutrality — both Oakland and Berkeley claim the town as an ally. This is what I want to know but cannot find out: Is broken lemon chicken an Oakland failing, or do Berkeley delivery places also wreck the dish?

To determine if delivery food has gotten better since the last time I ordered out, I conducted a taste test. The restaurants were chosen based on several factors: eye-catching display ad, willingness to deliver to the North Oakland taste-test kitchen, ability to accept credit cards, and a sample menu with cheap prices.

Yang Chow claims to be “#1 Chinese Food Delivery.” Does that mean it gets here the quickest, or that it has the best food? Szechwan’s ad has a picture of a guy on roller skates delivering a steaming tray of food. This I want to see. Humble New Ho Ho didn’t say it was the best at anything. But it did state that the restaurant has a steam table, is fast, and that the Peking ribs are a boon for the bargain hunter.

The plan was to order lemon chicken and pot stickers from all three. Yang Chow said it would be at the door within 45 minutes. The guy rang the bell in 25. Mercury, the god of delivery people, would be pleased with Yang Chow’s swiftness, but not its lemon chicken. The Country Time lemonade-like sauce was thin, sour, and packaged separately. Sliced pieces of lemon made the dish attractive but didn’t add to the flavor. The chicken was deep-fried and sliced into bite-sized pieces, but those bites were chewy. Most wackadoo of all: The chicken had walnuts sprinkled about, as if the cook had begun making walnut chicken and then mixed up the pans. The pot stickers were rubbery; one fell on the floor and bounced pretty high before the cat sniffed it and ran away. The bill came to a total of $14.12.

Next up was Szechwan. Although the delivery guy was quick, he wasn’t on roller skates and he wasn’t carrying a tray. Just like Yang Chow, the lemon chicken came in separate prim containers. The very bright yellow sauce had small solids floating in it, which did not add to its appearance. Unfortunately, it tasted as good as it looked. The chicken itself was okay. Pot stickers: Horrifying. Hardly any condiments. Total: $13.35.

Despite New Ho Ho’s bargain prices, the lady who answered the phone said the minimum delivery order was fifteen bucks, and pot stickers and lemon chicken only added up to thirteen. An expert arm-twister, she “suggested” that egg rolls would be a good addition. Fine. As promised, the food came within thirty minutes. Fantastically, the lemon chicken was prepared as it should be. Its cornstarch and oil formed a very happy union, and the fact that there was hardly any lemon flavor seems a small quibble. But the pot stickers were lousy. The coerced egg rolls were stuffed mostly with grease and cabbage, but were almost tasty dipped in the glowing red sauce that accompanies egg rolls. And the food came with an excellent assortment of condiments and fortune cookies. The total for everything was $15.00.

Last night, I received a call from a Food Fetish spy who, though richly rewarded, forgot the name of the restaurant she was investigating. Never mind — her story illustrates my point perfectly. She ordered mu shu pork from an Oakland Chinese restaurant that delivers. And she received the mu shu pork accompanied not by the traditional pancakes but with flour tortillas.

All an unfortunate Oakland citizen can do is pine away, studying the classifieds for those terribly expensive live-work lofts in Emeryville where you can order from anywhere.

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