One night in 2011, as I was waiting at Peking Quick One for my order of General Tso's chicken, I noticed that every table was full.
This was remarkable for two reasons. Tables in Chinese takeouts are usually vacant, most customers fleeing with their meals rather than supping in sparse Formica-topped surroundings. The other thing that struck me was that everyone was Asian, and judging from the sweatshirts, largely from the University at Buffalo, unusual for Tonawanda.
They ordered from a white sheet, not the usual trifold menu I'd been handed, the one listing the familiar fried rice combos and sweet fried chunks characteristic of American Chinese menus. When I got to the counter, I asked for the white sheet. It was in Chinese.
After some persistence, I was rewarded with the restaurant's only copy of its "home style" menu translated into English. And my education began.
Six years later, the little Tonawanda restaurant remains one of my favorite places in town to eat Chinese food. It excels at both the usual Americanized stuff and authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, luring those university students by the tableful for a taste of home.
Here, I too was a student. Here is where I learned that Chinese food includes shredded potatoes, smoky stir-fried matchsticks tarted up with vinegar and chile ($5.95).
That celery could be the main event in a dish, not just a supporting player, braised with five-spice and then wokked with a bit of beef ($6.95), meat as seasoning instead of the other way around.
Zucchini with shrimp ($6.95) works the same way, with the crustaceans adding a note of the sea to the clear, mild sauce.
Here’s where I learned that not everything served to customers is meant to be eaten. Cold dishes worth exploring include jerky-like beef marinated with orange peel, chile and ginger in a lake of orange oil, which you leave behind on the plate. (Here’s where I learned that mopping up that sauce up with rice will only end in intestinal regret.)
Here’s where I learned that tripe has another delicious guise outside tomato sauce, namely shredded tripe in garlic and sesame oil (both $7.95). It’s another cold salad, but this one sets the funkiness of poached, marinated organ meat against aromatics and chile flakes.
If that is too much of a walk on the wild side, at least try cold cucumbers with cilantro and garlic ($5.95). The dish works especially well as a foil against spicier dishes like the "crispy chili chicken" ($11.95). That's small chunks of boneless chicken fried in a seasoned crust, then stir-fried with more aromatics, tingle-inducing Sichuan peppercorn and handfuls of dried chiles.
Having seen similar dishes before, I didn’t need Peking Quick One to teach me that those dried chiles are not to be eaten, and make the dish look spicier than it tastes.
For another lip-tingling treat, try poached spicy slices of pork ($9.95), a big bowl brimming with red chile oil brought carefully to the table. In its depths lurk clear bean thread noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, strips of boneless pork, and three kinds of chiles. Its contents are meant to be trawled out and eaten with heaps of white rice. (Lesson: not every “broth” is meant to be drunk.)
Sea bass steamed with ginger, chile and scallion ($16-$22) was a straightforward celebration of fresh fish. Its fillets are loosened from bones with a nudge of the spoon, and seasoned further with pan sauce.
Another fish dish that turns heads is crispy fish in jalapeno ($10.95). Fish fillets are floured and fried, then wok-tossed with fresh chiles, including some spicy numbers. The resulting dish is crunchy, aromatic with wok haze, and just spicy enough to make you reach for the cucumbers.
Honey walnut shrimp ($10.95) is a guilty-pleasure dish, battered-and-fried shrimp drizzled with a candy-sweet sauce and punctuated with candied walnuts.
Vegetarians can have a good time with tofu with egg ($6.95), a bronzed plate-sized omelet that's usually a crowd pleaser but has also turned up unaccountably salty.
An eggs-with-leeks version ($6.95) is a lock for allium fans. Leek with dried tofu ($8) is a savory vegan dish that uses a chewier soybean curd instead of meat, while a saucy stew of eggplant, potato and green pepper ($6.95) makes a solid meal with a bowl of rice.
Dumplings are solid renditions, from steamed pork and cabbage ($5.50), to fried pork with leek and shrimp ($7.95), with chunks of shrimp adding another flavor dimension.
Peking Quick One is a rudimentary restaurant. Order at the counter, have a seat, and your dishes will be delivered. If you'd like water, help yourself from the pitchers in the fridge. Chopsticks are standard-issue, but forks and spoons are available on request. Rice is not automatic, and must be ordered.
These lessons and more are in store at Peking Quick One, if you want to expand your definition of Chinese cuisine. Or you could just stick to your beef and broccoli. If that’s the case, you’re covered. Maybe the next time you’re there, surrounded by Chinese students, you’ll be inspired to learn what they are missing from a home so far away.
Peking Quick One – 8 plates (out of 10)
WHERE: 359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda (381-8730)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
PRICES: small dishes and dumplings, $5.95-$8.95; entrees, $5.95-$22.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: No, one step
GLUTEN-FREE OPTIONS: Rice noodle chow mai fun, steamed vegetables, little else.