"PLEASE tell me I'm wrong . . . I'm in half a panic," wrote Michael Feuda.
"Say it ain't so!!" wrote John Dougherty, who was crestfallen when he saw the sign announcing the owners' retirement taped to Lakeside's door.
I went to investigate, and the bad news was obvious. The retirement notice was there and the door was ajar, and inside, Lakeside's no-frills tile dining room was in mid-demolition shambles.
Then a Chinatown miracle happened.
I closed my eyes for a moment to imagine the final lunch I never got to taste - the steaming green mounds of tiny bok choy studded with cloves of garlic, the platters of yawning clams overflowing with soy-tinged pork and peppers, the little dim-sum dishes laden with frilly-edged pork-and-peanut dumplings and crispy chiu chow squares of shrimp and water chestnut.
When I opened my eyes, Lakeside's owners were there. Brenda and Woon Leung had been passing in front of their old storefront at that very moment, and at the familiar sight of an old customer, Brenda stopped to chat. (Though I'd written about Lakeside many times, they had never realized who I was.)
"I haven't been able to sleep," she confided. "I miss my customers so much. But we are also very tired."
The Leungs hardly look retiring age - Brenda is 57, chef Woon is 61. But after 32 years in business, including nearly two decades at Lakeside, it was time to turn off the woks. Woon had trained some of Chinatown's best cooks over the years, including Brenda's brother, Eric Ng, who ran Lakeside's kitchen in recent years. But Woon had also successfully undergone treatments related to throat cancer. He needed to slow down.
But I wondered about that last meal. Would Woon indulge just one more student, and teach me to make those special dishes so that Lakeside's legacy would not be lost? In honor of the Chinese New Year (that's today), we made a plan.
We gathered high above Chinatown in the galley kitchen of a penthouse condo occupied by the Leungs' son, Warren, and we were ready to cook.
The morning had been spent shopping for ingredients. We picked out velveteen-leafed Shanghai bok choy and a bag of tight-lipped littleneck clams from Canada at the 4 Seasons grocery on 10th Street. At the Chung May market on Race Street, Woon led us to packages of wheat starch, to be mixed with a smidge of cornstarch for the silky white dumpling skins.
We found his preferred brand of oyster sauce (Lee Kum Kee), the dark mushroom-flavored soy, the canned water chestnuts, and the salty pickled radish. Be sure the bean-curd sheets used for the chiu chow rolls are soft and pliant, he warned, crumbling the edges of one noticeably dry package.
With all the ingredients finally around us, though, it was clear the old pro wasn't comfortable in the tight quarters of this underpowered galley kitchen. The dish towels he used as hot pads kept catching fire. He kept glancing behind himself for ingredients, the reflex of a master chef used to being flanked by a staff of prep cooks.
Warren filled that role admirably, having worked in the restaurant many years before becoming a pharmacist. And with his help as wok-washer and assistant, Woon quickly got into the groove, working in stages to build layers of flavor, cooking the individual elements of four separate dishes, then setting them aside for the final meticulous assembly.
He wok-poached the bok choy in water with a touch of oil to intensify its vivid green. The meat-and-peanut stuffing was cooked and seasoned, then left to cool before the dumpling skins were made. Clams were slowly simmered with the lid off to prevent them from becoming chewy. When they were tossed in the wok with the sauce of marinated pork and peppers, we sat down to devour the first of two courses.
The bok choy was a joy, snappy little balls of chlorophyll tossed with soft garlic cloves that had been fried to a sweet golden brown. The clams, their shells packed with salty dark crumbles of meat, were impossible to stop eating.
But Woon wasn't pleased, missing the high-heat power of his battery of industrial woks.
"Eighty percent," he said, waving his hand at the bok choy. Looking at the clams, he pronounced, "Seventy percent."
In a pause between courses, Brenda brought out the old photos. There was a picture from 1974 of them as young newlyweds in Hong Kong, fresh from their wedding arranged by Woon's "auntie." The next day, he brought her to Philadelphia, where he had a job at the original Imperial Inn.
There was a picture of Brenda's mother, Yuk, lighting firecrackers in front of Lakeside on its first day, March 18, 1989.
"Very lucky number," said Brenda, referring to the date. "And look, no hole in the sign!"
Of course, Brenda refused to fix the sign for 10 years after a beer bottle from a bar fight across the street flew right through their facade. "Good luck," she said.
And indeed, this bare-bones little dining room was always filled with the joy of a dedicated crowd - most of them Chinatown locals - who came to eat some of the most carefully crafted food in town. No shortcuts. Even the hot oil dipping sauce made from three kinds of chiles was prepared in-house.
Woon trained more than his share of cooks in his years at Riverside, their first restaurant, and Lakeside. He proudly names Ong's, Lee How Fook, and Pho Xe Lua as places to encounter his proteges.
But I know as we sit down to this final course of crispy chiu chow rolls and downy white dumplings that I'll never quite taste these flavors again. I help him whip the shrimp and water-chestnut stuffings. I take a lesson rolling the delicate dumpling skins, carefully crimping the pleated seams in the crook of my thumb and forefinger.
"Seventy percent," he says critically of the final dumplings, clearly missing the comfort of his old restaurant haunt.
But they are, in fact, delicious. The rolls are snappy and crisp, with the little crunch of water chestnut inside. The dumplings are an ethereal translucent white, with perfectly scalloped edges harboring sweet meat and roasty nuts inside. I am positively beaming as we polish off the entire lunch.
Brenda pours another glass of yellow chrysanthemum tea, then walks over to the kitchen, where she tenderly massages Woon's shoulders and says: "Now you can retire."
Baby Bok Choy
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus 1/3 cup more for frying garlic
1 1/2 pounds baby bok choy, washed
10 to 12 whole cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
5 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch, plus 1/3 cup water for slurry
1. Bring four cups of water and 2 tablespoons oil to a boil in a wok over a high flame. Add all the bok choy to the wok and stir for about 3 minutes, until the leaves have begun to wilt. Strain bok choy and set aside.
2. Add 1/3 cup vegetable oil to wok over medium high flame. Add garlic cloves and fry until they turn a deep golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Strain oil, and return garlic to wok. Add the bok choy, and stir to incorporate. Add soy sauce, 5 teaspoons water, salt and sugar.
3. In a separate bowl, add 1/3 cup water to cornstarch to make a slurry. Add slurry to bok choy in wok. Stir to incorporate, warming for about a minute, then serve.
- From Woon Leung of Lakeside Chinese Deli
Per serving (based on 6): 71 calories, 2 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 506 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Clams With Ground Pork and Peppers
Makes four servings
For pork marinade:
1/3 pound ground pork
5 teaspoons light chicken stock (water may be substituted)
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1/4 teaspoon mushroom-flavored dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
For the main dish:
1 1/2 pounds littleneck clams
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
4 teaspoons oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1. Mix ground pork with stock (or water), egg, oyster sauce, soy sauce, cornstarch, salt and sugar. Set aside to marinate in the refrigerator.
2. Cook the clams: Fill a saucepan with water (enough to cover the clams) and bring that to a boil. Add the clams and cook over medium-high heat, uncovered. After about 10 minutes, begin removing the clams as they open wide, and reserve on a platter. Continue until all the clams are opened. (Discard any clams that do not open.) In a deep bowl, submerge clams in cool water twice, gently removing any sand. Strain and set aside.
3. Heat vegetable oil in a hot wok, add the marinated pork, and stir-fry until it begins to turn golden, about three to five minutes. Strain off excess oil, then return pork to wok with the onion, celery and bell pepper and stir-fry for one minute. Add oyster sauce, sugar, dark soy.
4. When you are ready to finish the dish, ladle hot water over the clams to warm briefly. Strain excess liquid, add clams to wok, and stir to incorporate with pork and pepper mixture. Place on platter and serve.
- From Woon Leung of Lakeside Chinese DeliPer serving: 251 calories, 19 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 109 milligrams cholesterol, 462 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Meat and Peanut Dumplings
Makes about 30 dumplings
For the filling:
1 cup canned water chestnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup pickled salted radish, rinsed and finely chopped
1 cup jicama, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup shredded carrot
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1/2 pound ground pork
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons dark mushroom soy sauce
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup shelled peanuts
For dumpling skins:
1 1/2 cup wheat starch (see note)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon lard
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (to keep dumplings from sticking)
Make the filling:
1. Heat 1 cup hot water over high heat in a wok. Add all the vegetables, except the peanuts, and stir into the water, poaching for about 2 minutes. Strain and reserve.
2. Add another cup of hot water to the wok and bring to a boil. Add the pork and stir, poaching in the water until thoroughly cooked, about 4 to 5 minutes. Strain and reserve. Set aside.
3. Heat oil in a hot wok. Add pork and vegetables, stirring to incorporate. Add sugar, oyster sauce, dark mushroom soy sauce and salt. In a separate bowl, add water to cornstarch to make a slurry. Then add slurry to mixture in wok. Heat for one minute, then place on a platter to cool. Once cooled, mix in the peanuts.
Make the dumpling skins:
1. Put 2 cups of water in a pan to boil.
2. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, blend dry ingredients and lard, then add boiling water one ladle at a time until dough forms sticky ball and begins to come together. Water quantity may vary, but should be about 1/2 to 3/4 cup.
3. Remove and knead while still hot on a countertop until it begins to form a smooth white dough, no longer sticky to the touch, about 3 to 5 minutes. Roll into a log about one foot long and one inch high. Keep covered until ready to form the individual skins.
3. Pinch off inch-long pieces and roll into golf ball-sized rounds. Press into a flattened disk with the palm of your hand. Then, using a small dowel-sized rolling pin, gently roll the outside edges of the disk, turning counterclockwise until it forms a wide round cup. It should have a slightly thicker bottom, thinner edges, and be about 4 inches across.
4. Place a teaspoon of meat and peanut filling in the center. Fold edges up and crimp seams to create a sealed half-moon. Place the top of the dumpling in the crook of your hand - between the thumb and forefinger. Then, using the other hand, gather edges together in a pleated pattern. Gently squeeze the seam at the base to make the crimped edge mushroom out. Dab bottoms in a small dish of vegetable oil to prevent sticking.
5. Put the dumplings in a steamer basket and steam until the dough is translucent, about 12-15 minutes. Serve with a dip of soy sauce and hot chile oil.
- From Woon Leung of Lakeside Chinese DeliNote: Wheat starch is available at Asian markets.Per dumpling: 104 calories, 2 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 5 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 154 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Chiu Chow Shrimp Rolls
Makes 5 rolls
1/2 pound medium shrimp, raw
1 cup water chestnuts, minced
2 tablespoons scallions, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 egg, lightly beaten
1 large fresh bean curd skin
Vegetable oil for frying
1. In a mixer fitted with a paddle turning at low speed, add the shrimp, water chestnuts, and scallions. In a separate bowl, blend the cornstarch and flour, then add to shrimp mixture, followed by sugar, salt and egg. Blend on a medium-low speed for about 5 minutes, until frothy. This should be refrigerated for about 30 minutes to firm up.
2. Place a bean curd skin flat on a work surface and trim it to a rectangle about the size of a legal pad. Spread the filling lengthwise across the middle of the long side of the wrapper, forming a mound about 2 inches wide and 1 inch high. Gently fold one side of the wrapper up and over the filling, rolling it once so the side is completely sealed. Trim excess. Pat gently to shape the log, giving it a squared edge. With a very sharp knife (preferably a cleaver) slice the log into two-inch squares.
3. In a deep fryer or heavy-gauge pot, heat about two inches of oil to 350 degrees. Add the rolls and deep-fry until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove and serve immediately.
- From Woon Leung of Lakeside Chinese DeliPer roll: 261 calories, 22 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 13 grams fat, 90 milligrams cholesterol, 557 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.