Wandering Billy

A Moveable Feast

From crispy duck to carne asada tacos, Greensboro’s cuisine has gone global

 

By Billy Eye

“Going to a restaurant is one of my keenest pleasures. Meeting someplace with old and new friends, ordering wine, eating food, surrounded by strangers, I think is the core of what it means to live a civilized life.” — Adam Gopnik

My 35-year long search for Crispy Duck has ended!

In the early 1980s, I regularly dined at a Chinese restaurant on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood where, on a whim, I ordered something called crispy fried duck. I found myself going back for it time and again, it became my culinary crush. Well, more like an unrequited love. After that eatery closed, I never again saw crispy duck on any menu.

Brined duck cutlets bathed in sesame and cilantro, roasted so most of the fat is burned off, was first served in London just a few years before I tasted it. Crispy duck is somewhat similar to Peking duck but there’s no sauce and it’s a more time-consuming recipe that results in a very distinctive smoky taste. The fare we come to expect at a typical Asian buffet is Chinese in name only, much too sweet for beautiful downtown Hong Kong. Just recently, restaurants have been popping up in China offering General Tso’s chicken, sweet-and-sour pork and the like, and they’re quite the novelty.

I’m pleased to note that Greensboro is now home to an authentic Chinese restaurant, Captain Chen’s Gourmet China on Battleground in the Brassfield Shopping Center (remember that place?) under a sign reading “Go China.” On the Friday night my friends and I wandered into this unlikely destination, it was packed with young sophisticates, and I’m pretty sure we were the only folks speaking English. The décor was essentially nonexistent, and to handle the crowd overflow, we were seated at a collapsible plastic table, but the aroma alone suggested we were in for a rare treat  . . . and we were.

So much to sample, from exotic to simple — pork intestines stir-fried with red chili peppers; fish in black bean sauce and onion oil; sliced pork ears in red chili oil; cumin stir-fried beef with onion and green peppers; shredded pork in home-style garlic sauce. When a ten-top  behind us finished eating, I found myself gazing longingly at their leftovers. Every dish that passed us by looked smashingly delicious.

In addition there are numerous noodle dishes, soups and . . . that elusive crispy fried duck, tasting just as I remembered it from more than 35 years ago, if a bit more charred. The stir-fried spicy vermicelli with minced pork was wonderful as well; piled high, light, savory, with a tangy afterglow and just the right amount of heat.

This was a very enjoyable dinner out, the wait staff was friendly and, as is traditional, chefs could be seen dining in an adjacent room. You may want to give Captain Chen’s a try for lunch or on a weekday night when, presumably, it won’t be so crowded, but I rather enjoyed the energy in the room on a weekend evening, the result of everyone enjoying their meals as much as we were.

***

Speakin’ of eatin,’ I’ve been feasting on the tacos at El Mercadito for almost two decades now, since even back when they were located across the street from what is now Hops Burger Bar. In the 1990s, it was the only place in the city for authentic Mexican. Situated nowadays near the corner of Spring Garden and West Market, until around five years ago you had to be able to speak enough Spanish to place an order. No problemo for a Continental guy like myself (¡Hola, Señora Lupo, mi maestra de Español en la biblioteca!).

Everything on the menu is so freshly prepared. I love their carne asada tacos, finely chopped steak right off the grill, topped with shredded onion and cilantro, crumbled cheese and an avocado slice. The tortillas are made in-house; it’s obvious why most of the city’s finest restaurateurs get their taco shells from El Mercadito.

Steak, chicken and pork are being grilled constantly, all butchered inside the extensive meat market on site. Rolls for their exquisite sandwiches are baked every morning on the premises, the torta Cubana with chorizo, ham, chicken, jalapenos and queso comes highly recommended. I glanced over at a steak torta with grilled red and green peppers that looked heavenly. (What is this sudden bout of food envy?!?) Seating is limited, arrive early or late for lunch if you want to dine in.

Rows and rows of delectable pastries and vibrantly colorful cookies await you in the bakery portion of the market, sure to impress party guests if you’re entertaining this month.

***

Greensboro Beautiful is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a number of exciting events. For instance, on April 29th, they’ll be Groovin’ in the Garden, a family-friendly event taking place at the spectacular Gateway Gardens at the corner of East Gate City Boulevard and Florida Street. It’s an opportunity to enjoy a Sunday afternoon of music on two stages, food trucks, an instrument “petting zoo” and lawn games. Loads of fun and relaxation amongst the sumptuous variety of plant life you’ll discover there. Greensboro Beautiful’s Mebane Ham is excited that “Groovin’ in the Garden’ is changing the beat this year.  “We’ve decided to go with a Latin Groove!” she enthuses. “Joining us will be West End Mambo, with salsa dancing.  We’ll have the usual Garden Quest, wonderful food vendors and lots of great music.” See you there!

***

Billy Baites took to the podium in the back of Scuppernong Books recently, reading his hilarious short story published in the prestigious Catamaran Literary Reader. Taken from a harrowing childhood experience, it’s a Southern-fried tale that would have made a great sketch on The Carol Burnett Show if it hadn’t happened in real life.

***

If I gave anyone the wrong impression last month that Higgins Bicycle Shop had gone out of business, please forgive. I only wished to point out that they, like Tex & Shirley’s, will no longer be operating out of their longtime digs. In the case of Higgins, while they vacated the showroom, Mary Higgins Lawing points out, “We have just moved into the connecting building on 2418 Battleground. We are still in business going strong, selling used bikes/vintage and still offering our $30 Tune-Up special.”  OH

For someone who enjoys eating as much as he does, it’s odd that Billy Eye still weighs the same as he did in high school.

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