By Michael Nagrant
For years, I’ve been telling people Peter Billingsley, the actor who played Ralphie in the movie “A Christmas Story, ” was now a porn star. By the time my family was doped up on rum balls and snoring through their third viewing of the movie, I’d whip out the porn nugget and invariably win friends and influence people. In this age of Google, since no one ever called me on it, I thought it must be true.
If it wasn’t bad enough that Billingsley’s career had stalled worse than any child actor since Elliot from “E.T.” (Gary Coleman and Webster don’t count because they were already like 18), I’d also falsely grouped him with Ron Jeremy. I apologize, Pete. Turns out, maybe more appropriately, the kid who stuck his tongue to the frozen pole in the movie had worked in porn. I know this because “A Christmas Story” led me to a great meal on Christmas Eve this year, and while reading up for this column, I discovered the truth.
Porn mythology, Red Ryder BB guns and fishnet-clad leg-lamps aside, the real reason I adore the movie is because of the scene where, with traditional Christmas dinner ruined by hungry dogs, Ralphie and his family are forced to a solitary Chinese restaurant (inspired by the defunct Cam Lan in Hammond, Indiana, once a haunt of Al Capone) meal.
For me, it was the perfect foodie rebellion fantasy, an ideal alternative to being stuck wolfing down overcooked poultry and being regaled with lies (all the kids got 1600 SAT’s and we’re building vacation houses in Gstaad and Kabul) from the crazy aunt. The idea that I could forsake Christmas drudgery and instead eat a winter’s hibernation-worth of MSG-laden goodies was genius. Having plenty of family committed to tradition, the idea remained a fantasy.
Then, last year, on Christmas night, after seeing “We Are Marshall” (Christmas movie viewings being a welcome family tradition, even if I tend to always get cowed by the female members of our clan into seeing Matthew McConaughey or Brad Pitt vehicles), I pleaded like a snot-nosed kid for my father-in-law to stop as we sped past countless Chinese restaurants.
Incredibly, our random stop landed us at the best Chinese restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, Fortune House (Not really “fortunate,” as the place closed months after we dined). I can still taste the star anise in the egg roll as I write. Bathed in the glow of a neon “open” sign and hunkered down against a raging snowfall in a warm booth with my wife and in-laws while chowing down on beef and broccoli was everything I expected it to be. A tradition was born.
This year, we stayed in Chicago and met friends at the front door of Spring World, which has some of the best Yunnan-style funghi preparations and also maybe the best Kung Pao chicken in the city. At that moment, my friend realized that Spring World didn’t serve liquor, and he really needed a beer. We figured we’d head down to the other end of the Chinatown mall to Lao Sze Chuan, but since it’s revered by every food journalist in town, it’s gotten more press than Brangelina and lines were out the door.
We headed across the street to Mandarin Kitchen (2143 South Archer). While the spot is also known for its soup dumplings and Shanghai treats, we opted for traditional hot-pot service. The stark dining room is filled with about ten tables, most outfitted with customers hunched over propane burners topped with roiling stockpots infused with a heady brew of cardamom, ginger, garlic and Szechuan peppercorn-infused broth. The meager air duct in the center of the drop ceiling ensures that a cloud of steam hangs over the room and your meal doubles as a pore-cleansing treatment.
We opted for a yin-yang combo of hellfire-spiced broth and a milder chicken-stock-style brew. We supplemented the broth with about thirty plates (this must be where they send the bad dishwashers of the world) that included tendon meatballs, head-on shrimp, a whole host of veggies (pea shoots were exceptional), won tons, scallion pancakes and fresh handmade noodles.
The noodles should not be missed. Likewise, while you can get regular meatballs, the airy texture of the tendon meatballs is better than your typical leaden fare. You should consider two orders of the crispy scallion pancake, as we blew through it in seconds. Plunging the fresh shrimp in the broth for a minute or so yielded tender, sweet pink flesh in a thin, crispy shell. You could peel them, but the shells are so thin, the crunchy counterpoint improves the crustacean. Likewise, you should definitely eat the briny, rich heads.
The hot-pot broth, which had been enriched by all the cooked vegetables and protein, was a sinus-clearing, body-warming and comforting elixir to end the meal. While my description here is compendious, the meal was eminently satisfying. Hopefully the bad luck that befell Fortune House isn’t a pattern, because I’d really like Mandarin Kitchen to be part of my Christmas 2008 dining plan.