My stomach rumbled, and I had been walking through a labyrinthine set of white alleyways next to a Starbucks on Yanling Road in downtown Changzhou (the one near the Christian church). I was looking for Bros Wings, which had been getting some word-of-mouth attention in the expat community. Apparently, they had a hamburger there that you had to eat with a knife and a fork, and I was all up for investigating that in further detail. Only, I was sort of disappointed once I got there. The place looked empty, and the neon “open” sign had been turned off. I twisted my mouth in disappointment. I wandered around a bit, but I circled back just to make double sure they were not open. I think I saw the owners taking part of in the ice bucket challenge craze. People crowded around with cell phone cameras as one unfortunate dude nearly yelped – once the splash of cold water hit his head.
So, sometimes with impromptu dining out, Plan B becomes a necessity. I was sick and tired of McDonalds, Burger King, and Starbucks after a very tiring and busy two months of being out, about, and working. Also, I’m kind of leery of just ambling into Chinese places I don’t know or haven’t been recommended by my Chinese or expat friends. So, where was I going to eat? I figured Summer wouldn’t be so bad. After all, I had eaten there before and enjoyed their cheeseburger.
Summer is located in the multi-level Fashion Mark shopping area. It’s one of those other malls right next to the Nandajie commercial zone downtown. In fact, it’s right across the street. It’s on the ground floor, and Summer’s interior décor is nothing to swoon over; it appears like an average, run-of-the-mill restaurant that serves western food. It has two serving floors, plenty, of tables, and a bar with a television. The other time I had dined here, I had a cheeseburger. It wasn’t fantastic! Yet, it cost roughly the same as a Bacon Whopper with Cheese Value Meal at Burger King, and the quality of the beef patty exceeded that of the internationally proflific American fast food chain.
I also had one other motivating factor. Many months ago, I promised a friend I would try a particular Summer menu item and then write about it. Let me explain a little bit of a back story here. Jason Frye, an extremely sarcastic goofball and published travel writer, had composed two books on North Carolina. One was about North Carolina as a whole, and the other was about the Carolinian coast and the Outer Banks. He’s writing a third right now. We were poetry MFA compatriots at UNCW a while back. If anybody has a discerning and a critical taste for “North Carolinian Pulled Pork,” it would be him. So, my aim had become to not only satisfy my rumbling stomach, but to do a bit of role playing as one Mr. Jason Frye. The question would be, would he like it?
So, I walked into Summer and took a seat. It didn’t take long for the waiter to bring me a menu, but he then seemed to forget about me. It took about 15 minute and a different waitress to actually notice me and take my order. I pointed at the picture of what was titled “North Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich” and said “一个!” (yi ge, aka “one” followed by a Chinese measure word). I also ordered the stuffed potato skins as an appetizer.
Both dishes came out at the same time. So, the appetizer was not served first. Actually, I didn’t care. I was more preoccupied with my phone and WeChat at the moment. I ate the potato skins first. The menu described the meat as “salty beef” in English. It really didn’t have any distinctive flavor. The scooped-out potato shells were topped off with plenty of cheese and a single slice of what looked like a jalapeño pepper. Only, the whole appetizer tasted sweeter than salty or spicy. The “jalapeño” actually tasted pickled. I’m not complaining. Again, it was okay, not great. More importantly, it started to calm the rumbling of my hungry stomach.
Now the appetizer had been devoured, I launched into a full frontal assault of the pulled pork sandwich and the accompanying side dish. It came served on a long and thin wooden cutting board with a mesh-metal cup of waffle fries. Yes, cross-cut waffle fries. I smiled as I ate them – seeing them was a first for me in China. Normally, these would taste like the Hardee’s or cheap cafeteria spiral or curly-cut French fries you’d easily find America. Not quite as spicy, but I enjoyed dipping them into a ramekin of ketchup, anyway
So, now, onto the sandwich. Would my pal, an expert in things North Carolinian, Jason Frye like it? No. He would have been sorely disappointed. Allow me to explain. In North Carolina, pulled pork is almost religiously important. It’s like pizza in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City. People argue over where and how you can get the best, and nobody will ever, ever agree. Consensus is impossible. There are serious debates over what correctly constitutes “barbeque.” These sandwiches differ in taste depending on where you are in North Carolina.
It comes down to this: how sweet does the pork taste? In the western parts of North Carolina, sugar is added. For the most part, the dominant ingredient tends to be pork shoulder. In Eastern Carolina, sugar isn’t added as much. Different parts of the pig are also used to include a subtler variety of flavor. I remember the eastern variety having a smokier taste, too.
So, back to The Middle Kingdom, Changzhou, and Summer in Fashion Mark. Would Jason have liked the pulled pork sandwich? As I said, probably not. The sandwich had the distinction of neither being sweet nor being smoky. I can’t say it tasted bland. The pulled pork itself was both moist and juicy. That beats “dried out” any day of the week, and have had my share of dry and tasteless barbeque in Carolina – just like I have had bad pizza in New Jersey, which claims to be the center of the pizza universe. Still, Jason would have raised this thing to his mouth, chomped into it, chewed, swallowed and would have given me a thoughtful look. “This doesn’t even taste like it comes from North Carolina.”
And he would have been absolutely correct. It absolutely doesn’t taste that way at all, no matter what Summer calls the item on its menu. Does this mean it’s bad? Not really. Ask yourself this: how many other Changzhou restaurants have even bothered trying to mimic southern American cuisine? Not many. If you are looking for perfection when it comes to regional American food in China, you will always be disappointed. That comes to my final point. When you live in Middle Kingdom and try to find western food, sometimes “not bad” is actually a ringing endorsement. Mediocre is a lot better than what you can find. Still, when it comes to Summer and pulled pork, it wasn’t enough to elicit nostalgia for the five years I lived in North Carolina.