Intrepid writer and film buff Jeff Feuerstein admitted to us that his bizarre food obsession is chicken lo mein. So we sent him on a quest to find the best in his hometown of NYC. This is his story.
“China on Thursday launched an experimental module called ‘Heavenly Palace’ that will be the first stage of an eventual space station. Judging by the name, it will be where all the other space stations order take-out from.” – Seth Meyers, SNL Weekend Update
Do you think a grown-up Harry Potter still sent Owls to his former professors? Or did Wizards – once graduated from Hogwarts – decide to get on the Muggle bandwagon of text messages and email? I ask because I still talk to my 10th Grade English teacher – a cross between Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society and Papa Smurf – and even if I had an owl I would still choose to email him because 1) it’s more efficient and 2) it’s paperless. In fact it was on his non-owl recommendation that I ventured all the way to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to sample some hyped-up chicken lo mein.
Nancy Lee’s Pig Heaven – not your typical Chinese Restaurant name. It sounds like a BBQ joint. I miss the days of clever awnings reading “Fu’s Rush In” or “Wok to Wok.” Now, places just phone it in and smack the words Garden, Palace or Kitchen somewhere on the cover of the menu. However, one thing I learned in high school English class, and in Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” was to never judge a book by it’s cover.
My companion and I trekked up to Nancy Lee’s on 2nd Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets, where we found the eatery to be completely empty. Zero customers besides me and my friend on crutches, who did not appreciate the two steps at the entrance. I was a bit wary and, frankly, afraid of what I would have to tell my poetry mentor turned Zagat-like guide.
Of course at a place called Pig Heaven you gotta order pork heavy. We did our due diligence with a plate of spare ribs and some moo shu pork. We shied away from ham lo mein – for obvious reasons – and focused most of our attention on the meat of my assignment, chicken, in lo mein form.
Burning hot spare ribs and table-made moo shu wraps arrived shortly before the anticipated noodles. I don’t know what was driving business away from the joint because the swine-based products were dynamite. This was a good sign for the final dish to come…
And then I saw the dish being brought to our table and my heart sank. Stuck in the middle of the light brown strands of lo mein were bits of orange, the dread shredded carrots that separates good lo mein from bad. The ultimate lo mein faux pas, in other words. Everything else on the plate seemed up to par – the grease, the scallion-to-noodle ratio, the chicken. But those carrots, man. As a Syracuse alumnus, I’m all for orange in every other aspect of my life. Nevertheless, I had to carry on.
I closed my eyes for my first bite. The taste was on and the carrots were hardly noticeable. My mouthful of flavors was a logjam of textures mixing together in perfect harmony – something like a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tune. Maybe my sense of taste was heightened without the pleasure of sight, but even with my eyes wide open the pan-fried, garlicky hodgepodge held my full attention. Crunchy cabbage, as anticipated, plus smooth pasta, real-tasting protein (like, it was actually chicken). We made sure to clean our plates save the opaque liquid creating a fine film on the white china. The lo mein was fine, indeed. Definitely a candidate for the best I’ve had to date on the island of Manhattan.
This is where it gets weird.
The check came. Calculations were all correct. Food was fairly priced. I turned to my fellow diner, Q.
“Where are the fortune cookies?”
“Maybe they give them to you after you pay?”
We both knew that wasn’t true. That’s never true. You read the fortune at the table, usually while the waitress swipes your credit card. What kind of Chinese Restaurant ends your meal sans cookie with a slip of paper in the middle? I didn’t want to ask for them — because wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the chaos theory of predicted destiny? No, I was to go the rest of my day a little less knowledgeable about myself, my future, and my lucky numbers. You almost had it, Nancy Lee. You almost had me in Pig [and lo mein] Heaven.
But no, the search continues…