Chinese dining a popular part of city's 'Christmas Story'
Marissa Alpern, 10, left, and Sylvia Alpern, 8, of Mt. Lebanon have lunch with their parents Tuesday at the China Palace on Walnut Street in Shadyside.
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The iconic holiday movie Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" depicts the closing scene inside Chop Suey Palace, where the young Ralphie Parker and his family spend Christmas dinner.
Before the meal arrives, they're serenaded in a politically incorrect rendition of "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells." Reluctant employee carolers are chastised by the lead server, who demands several do-overs for pronunciation.
The family squirms with embarrassment, eventually rescued by the delivery of a crispy, whole Peking duck, presented with its head still attached. Mrs. Parker squeals in dismay. Ralphie and his brother are delighted.
"It's smiling at me," Ralphie's Old Man tells a server.
In the fictional town of Hohman, Ind., six decades ago, the Parkers are the only family dining at Chop Suey Palace.
Dressed in their holiday best, they are dwarfed by empty tables that await customers who will never arrive.
Fast-forward to Christmas 2012 in Pittsburgh, where eating at a Chinese restaurant is among the most beloved rituals for those who don't celebrate the holiday, as well as for some who do.
There are no empty tables at China Palace in Shadyside during the lunch rush Tuesday.
The phone rings incessantly. "We don't deliver until 4 p.m.," manager Gregg Katz tells callers, saying they have to wait.
"Christmas is the busiest day of the year," he said. "We're jam-packed busy."
By 1 p.m. Christmas, Mr. Katz has already seated 50 customers.
A busy day at the restaurant averages 150 diners for lunch and dinner. On Christmas, that number doubles.
Mr. Katz said China Palace has been this busy on the holiday since he began working there six years ago.
Most guests at China Palace are Chinese immigrants living in Pittsburgh, students or Jewish families from Squirrel Hill. A few folks are there to celebrate Christmas.
The biggest difference regarding business on the holiday isn't just the volume. It's the ticket price.
"All the orders are big," Mr. Katz said.
"Most nights, a table's bill is $25, $30 or $40. Today, it's $130, $140. People come in large groups," he said.
At How Lee in Squirrel Hill, manager Paul Chong expects about 100 guests for the day.
It's "mostly friends or families," he said, with about half his customers ordering Sichuan dishes from the Chinese menu.
Both China Palace and How Lee offer diners two menus.
The English-language version is seeded with the greatest hits of Chinese-American fare, which includes egg rolls, beef with broccoli, General Tso's or sesame chicken, and pork lo mein.
These dishes are the stars of the book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," Jennifer 8. Lee's terrific exploration of Chinese dishes adapted for American tastes. They include the origin of the fortune cookie as well as chop suey, which was, in fact, a joke that a San Francisco-based Chinese chef played on his boss, who asked him to make a dish that "passed as Chinese."
Unless diners have a Chinese menu sherpa, most customers order from the Americanized menu, Mr. Katz said.
That's unfortunate, since the Chinese menu at China Palace is more deliciously diverse.
Dishes on the Chinese menu include Kung Pao squid. Pillowy fish is dressed in ginger, garlic, scallions, soy and Sichuan peppercorns. The latter aren't really peppercorns at all, but the husk of a seed that numbs the tongue and offers a zing like a mild electric current.
The menu offers searing and addictive Mapo tofu garnished with scallions and chopped pork.
It also features the bright green of baby bok choy with black mushrooms. A handful of dishes for adventurous diners includes a plate of crispy intestines or shirred jellyfish.
At How Lee, the Chinese menu is more about Sichuan specials, Mr. Chong said, many of which feature the spicy ma la sauce. Hot pots, dan dan noodles and twice-cooked pork also make an appearance.
Tea-smoked duck is a popular order on Christmas, Mr. Chong said, who noted that most diners ask for the bird to be carved and the head removed before serving. This dish, usually reserved for festive occasions, features a duck marinated in wine, brown sugar, Sichuan peppercorns and ginger that, after a day of marinading, is smoked over tea leaves.
The smoked duck is a contrast to a roasted Peking duck, which is delivered whole and carved tableside, where it serves as three dishes. Crispy skin in garlic sauce followed by duck pancakes with bean sauce and vegetables serve as two. Duck broth with the resulting fat and bones or stir fry is the third.
At either restaurant, whether duck is carved or presented whole, diners can count on a graceful delivery, unlike the scene in "A Christmas Story."
There is no server who beheads the duck at the table with karate-chopped cleaver.
There is no chance of dining alone. A crowd fills tables and patrons wait by the door.
There are no tableside carolers.
Despite the contrast, at Chinese restaurants such as China Palace and How Lee, Christmas in Pittsburgh is, for diners, quite the festive dinner out.
First Published December 26, 2012 12:00 am