It is a custom that dates back to the first time our ancestors set foot on American soil—or a least to the first time a Jew tasted moo shoo pork. Every Christmas, in urban Chinatowns and suburban strip malls across the country, there are Jews tucking into meals of lo mein, General Tso’s chicken and wonton soup. The Jewish Christmas tradition of a Chinese feast, often followed by a movie, is almost as important to our cultural psyche as the Christmas goose or ham. It may, in fact, be even more important because it arguably unites us more as a people than any holiday of our own. If you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions, as the saying goes, but the salty-sweet-spiciness of Chinese food is something we can all get behind.
In the age of the gourmet omnivorous Jew, the meal has taken a step up in authenticity and flavor. In many restaurants, bold regional Chinese cooking has replaced bland, gelatinous Chinese-American fare. In the case of Legend Bar & Restaurant, authentic Szechuan cuisine supplements a fairly unremarkable menu of Chinese-American standards. That’s where I went on Christmas Eve as part of a group of 17 Jews (we had some doctors AND a lawyer), plus a few gentiles with nowhere else to go. My friend Dan Dan Noodle, a yeshiva bachur in an earlier life, organizes the annual excursion. Imperial Stout and Sgt. Pepperjack were among those in attendance, in addition to a number of people I hadn’t met, including Dan Dan’s friends Perogie Officer, The Glutard and Roo-barb.
We were initially planning to make the trek out to our beloved Little Pepper in College Point, Queens, but Dan Dan ended up getting a gig at a cheesy bridge-and-tunnel Christmas party for later that evening and had to change our dining venue to Manhattan. Legend, formerly a Vietnamese fusion restaurant known as Safran, recently switched over to Szechuan and had gotten some positive reviews. We thought it would be worth a try. Dan Dan did his research and solicited menu requests in advance. He arrived with a copy of the menu he had printed out from the Internet upon which he had made check marks next to every promising dish. One of them was a dish provocatively called “Tears in Eyes.” Made of slippery, pearly bean curd chunks topped with roasted chilies and a sauce of fermented soy beans (see top photo), this dish was my favorite of the night. It was spicy, but not more so than some of the other dishes we tasted. Still, the unique texture of the bean curd and the deeply flavorful sauce kept my palate interested through every bite.
Among the other dishes, there were some classics, including dan dan noodles (of course!) and ma po tofu. The noodles were solid, although somehow not quite as good as Little Pepper’s version. And I prefer the fiery ma po tofu at Szechuan Gourmet, which has heightened flavors that are more mouth-numbing than Legend’s version. Pork dumplings were pillowy with juicy interiors, while cold jellyfish was noodle-like with a satisfying chew. There were blistered sauteed string beans with olive leaves paste and a not-too-spicy dish of sliced pork with crispy ricecake-like disks, which the menu called rice crusts. The uncured bacon sauteed with leeks was a little boring, though pork belly is never very far from delicious. Far more interesting, however, were the pork intestines with hot chili peppercorn sauce (see second photo). These had an excellent tender texture and packed a complex sweet-spicy punch. Plus, what would a Jewish Christmas been without hot pork intestines?
One of the spiciest looking dishes turned out to be fairly mild. The Chongqing chicken arrived submerged in a sea of dried chili peppers, but the tasty morsels of meat beneath them took on only the faintest hint of the toasty heat. (That is, unless you are Roo-barb and The Glutard, who later confessed to me that they each bit into one of the peppers and paid the price with their mouths and esophagi aflame for much of the rest of the evening. If a dish is 75 percent composed of one ingredient, you assume you’re supposed to eat it, Roo-barb reasoned. Not, it turns out, when that ingredient is dried hot peppers.) Chengdu braised duck was rich and tasty, sucked off the cleavered pieces of leg, thigh and rib bone.
There were two soups on the table: one made with fish and napa cabbage was beautifully accented with flashes of hot chili, while the second was a complex dark broth filled with crunchy bean sprouts and glassy cellophane noodles. This may sound like way too much food, but—call it a Hanukkah miracle— we managed to clean every plate and even save room for the requisite orange slices. That is not to say we didn’t all come away feeling completely stuffed. I know I did. In the great tradition of our ancestors, we overdid it just enough that we might not feel ready to eat again for at least another four hours. Tradition! Tradition! Even Tevya would have been proud.
Legend Bar & Restaurant
88 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10011