When "excess" is my middle name, "the cure" needs to be my nickname. Or something like that. These past two weekends proved to be an epicurean endurance challenge paired with lots and lots of booze. It's fun to fly, but coming down is never fun.
After the bright lights are turned off, the party people go home, and the dreaded hangover begins to creep up on me, I know it's time to seek sanctuary. To go to a place where I'm always welcome, even at 3 a.m. To just be. And to get some hangover food.
Chef Lupe Liang was seated at his small table near the cash register reading a newspaper. There was only one table of customers in Hop Woo at that hour. A family. They were finishing up what looked like a big meal with a chicken carcass picked clean, hollowed out crab armor piled high on a plate, and a few strands of greasy chow fun on another.
I strolled in with Val of Trippy Food and drunkenly announced our arrival. Chef Liang turned around, jumped to his feet, greeted me with a big smile, and automatically set places for us at his larger dining table next to the kitchen door.
He could tell I was three sheets, maybe even four, to the wind and rushed into the kitchen to bring something out. His lovely wife Judy is always dressed to impress in a chi pao gown. Tonight, it was a deep midnight blue dress with gold accents. She told us that he was going to serve us abalone chicken soup.
From the first spoonful, I felt rejuvenated. My head gently cleared. My vision sharpened. My soul saved once again from this town.
I drank a simple tonic with a few ingredients like chicken feet, bulky slabs of tender abalone, and a few medicinal Chinese herbs and roots that chef Liang is famous for spiking in his soups. With each mouthful, I could feel my insides resetting and my body detoxing. This soup was savory and profound, with that unique Chinese medicinal flavor. Chef Liang was feeding me and healing me with this abalone chicken soup.
Eating things incinerated by blistering oil seems to be a tradition for nighthawks trying to minimize damage done by binge drinking. Val couldn't resist ordering a plate of fried duck tongue. I've eaten duck tongue a few times now in various Chinese and Taiwanese spots around town. Normally (if you can call eating a duck's tongue "normal"), they're presented in a pile, disconcertingly displayed like a stack of spare parts. Duck tongue is especially freaky because, unlike beef or lamb, there is a thin bone that runs through the center of it. Eating this delicacy requires that you nibble around this infernal bone, which makes it kind of like eating a miniature ear of corn... made of duck.
Hop Woo's chef Liang served his fried duck tongues in a way I've never seen it presented — with the beak attached, well, most of it anyway. The beak is part of the fried tongue but, for some odd reason, it's only the perimeter of the beak, its frame. The center has vanished. And as a direct result of the frying, the remaining portion of the beak is rendered so crispy, it's largely edible, like duck-beak chips.
The crazy thing about this crazy dish is that it totally works — satisfyingly salty, crispy with a delicious duck finish. This presentation is actually easier to eat than the version I've been eating in the San Gabriel Valley and even Taiwan. It's a handy snack, and with a Tsingtao, it is unstoppable. (I only had half a Tsingtao since I was sharing with chef Liang. You never let a chef drink alone, right?)
In case the two previous items didn't sober me up, chef Liang suggested something really fresh. He excitedly returned to the kitchen to retrieve a final plate. His wife suspiciously lept up from the table and began mumbling to herself with a weird look on her face.
Chef came back with a plate, a piece of fresh lettuce, and a live frog quietly resting on it. Its large eyes were clear, its algae-green skin glistened with mucous, but it remained completely quiet and motionless. I was already starting to sober up pretty well, but if that frog suddenly jumped on my person in my fragile state, I would've released any residual alcohol by wetting myself. If that in fact was chef Lupe Liang's scheme, it would've worked. The frog didn't seem to want to be a part of it, however, and didn't move a muscle.
It was another weekend survived in the city. I never know how I'm going to get through it. This time it was chef Liang's strange menagerie at Hop Woo that saved my soul. Until next time...
— Eddie Lin, Deep End Dining