In yesterday’s print column I revisited the legend of Peter Chang — the Sichuan chef who moves from restaurant to restaurant throughout the Southeast, including Marietta’s Tasty China. According to Tasty China owner Dahe Yang, he is planning to open a spot in Marietta.
On the trail of Peter Chang
The food at Tasty China was perhaps not as spectacular as spectacular can be, but was more on the level of supremely awesome. As each dish arrived at the table, we eagerly passed it around the table: tender wedges of potato and eggplant; a mound of crispy dry-fried black mushrooms; a bowl of slithery, vinegary tree ear mushrooms.
Then came a quintessential Tasty China dish — slips of tender beef coated with so many flecks of red chile and Sichuan peppercorn that it hits the palate with a shock. I knew it would wreak havoc on my gut, but it was so delicious I couldn’t stop eating. Another bite of beef, and another. I might be paying for this the next day. (As I like to joke, a meal at Tasty China can be summarized as “Eat. Love. Pray.”)
Was Peter Chang — the chef who put this Marietta restaurant on everyone’s radar — in the kitchen? No, but you could still feel his afterglow. He had been there recently.
Will Chang be coming back to Atlanta? Yes, says Tasty China owner Dahe Yang. He and Chang will open a new restaurant nearby. In fact, Chang was up in New York, shopping for dishware. Wait and see.
I will. I’m one of the legions of Chang-heads who rejoice when this peripatetic chef decides to make an appearance in cities up and down the Eastern seaboard. His story is entering the realm of legend. Chang-mania began in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where stealth relocations took him from restaurant to restaurant until fans found him.
Then, poof. He was gone until he showed up at Tasty China. Chang-heads drove down, just to try his food once again. Poof. He was in Knoxville. Poof, Charlottesville, Va.
Everywhere he goes, local reporters hear of the legend, show up at X or Y little strip mall restaurant and try to interview him, though he doesn’t speak English. I remember standing next to Chang — skinny and sleepy-eyed — in the Tasty China kitchen as he poured an unbelievable amount of ground cumin into a wok.
So great became the legend that Chang became the subject of competing profiles in the New Yorker and Oxford American magazines. What other Atlanta chef was ever the subject of a New Yorker magazine profile?
Writers everywhere try to find the motives of his wandering ways. Is Chang escaping something, moving so that he doesn’t get found? Maybe he’s on a mission to bring his trademark Sichuan menu to restaurants throughout the Southeast. When I was visiting a friend in Knoxville recently, he took me to the Chang stopover, a gloomy little place called Hong Kong House. As soon as I opened the menu, I felt like I could recite it.
But these writers also wondered why so many people followed Chang — driving hours upon hours for his dry-fried eggplant or boiled fish with tofu in hot oil, prepared by the master’s hand.
He is a great chef, that’s for certain. You need a tolerance for spice, but neither a particularly sensitive palate nor acute mind, to find pleasure in the genius of his cooking. There is a precision and focus to his plating and an understanding of how to build flavors that is pure Chang. Between those poles of numbing Sichuan peppercorn and hot chile, he packs in other flavors that grow, develop, communicate in ways you never find elsewhere.
But I think there’s another element at play. Despite the strange ferocity of his cooking, it remains accessible. Chang restaurants are never those places that sequester the good stuff behind a bait-and-switch veil of chicken lo mein. They are never those kinds of Chinese restaurants that prepare a Chinese menu for Chinese guests and an Americanized one for everyone else. He doesn’t speak a language of cultural tradition as much as one of pure flavor. He couldn’t be more transparent about his desire to sear your consciousness with his food.
I suspect he is on a mission. Either that, or he’s running from a crazy ex-wife. Whatever the case, I just pray it’s true he’s coming back to Atlanta.