4414 University Avenue, San Diego
I take the pig's rectum, hold it on the fork. This is it. Chomp.
Try not to think, I tell myself. I mean, if this wasn't what it is, I'd quite enjoy it. A little rubbery, squishy, as animal tubes always are, but they've given it a good soy-vinegar, slightly sweet flavor. As the guy behind the counter, Chow, says, it's the kind of stuff you have with a glass of whiskey at a nice rowdy game of poker.
This started when I was hoofing it west along University, up near 44th. I heard this loud talk -- all in Chinese -- coming through a metal mesh side door of a streetside restaurant. I see the flash of cleavers, the chop chop chop of work on wooden chopping boards.
Now I'm curious. I walk around to the front. I step into this bare-bones shop (only one table and two chairs). A row of roasted ducks hangs by their necks in a stainless-steel-and-glass cabinet, plus small sides of what look like pork.
Busy Chinese lady behind the counter is chopping a duck down the middle for this guy Gene, who says he's been coming "for years." Now she scoops what look like duck feet out of a soupy chafing dish. Then stomach lining and ears and wiggly small intestines. "I'm going to take this all home and eat it with a bottle of wine," Gene says.
I check the chalk menu board on the wall. It's written in Chinese and English. Most things are sold by the pound. Like, roast ribs are $8.50, roast pork is $7.75, BBQ pork is $6.50, BBQ spare ribs are $6.35. BBQ pork fried rice is $3.50 for a large portion, $2 for a small portion. And "open duck" is $17 lb. Then they have a bunch of dim sum (it means "heart's delight" in Cantonese), like a BBQ pork dumpling with pork stuffed inside (80 cents), and a coconut roll (70 cents).
I see they have a trayful of the dim sum on the counter, along with platefuls of sweet sticky rice ($3) and a big flan-looking egg bun ($3.50).
The busy Chinese woman has stopped for a moment. She stands behind her cash register, which is placed over a family altar. All you can hear is that chop chop chop and Chinese voices back-and-forthing in the kitchen.
"My husband, my brother, my nephew, six relatives," she says.
"Can I eat here?" I ask. I point to the table.
"Oh, yes, yes," she says. "Something like this?" She points to a red-skinned piece of pork hanging in the cabinet.
"Sure," I say. "Uh, can I have rice with that?"
"No problem." She takes it over to the chopping board, chops it into a dozen quarter-inch slices, stuffs hot rice around it, and charges me five bucks for the lot, including a pot of "special" soy sauce. "My husband started making his secret soy recipe in Hong Kong," she says. "Even I don't know what's in it."
The only problem is, they don't have drinks here. "All right if I go and buy a soda and bring it back?" I ask.
"No problem," she says again.
So I mosey over to the Apple Tree, get a 20-ounce Sprite ($1.61), and in two minutes I'm head-down, attacking the BBQ pork, Chinese-style. God, it is delicious. The sauce is soy...plus what? Ginger? Something a little sweet. Okay, so it's served in a polystyrene box, but who cares?
Between my chews and her steady line of customers, we get to talking. "I started this place 21 years ago," she says, "with my husband. But I'm Tom, not him. In Cantonese, my name is Man Tom." She is from Canton. But her husband Chow is from Hong Kong, so they made it Hong Kong–style cooking, not Cantonese.
This is when another Chow comes out. Not Man's husband but her nephew. He's a cool dude who has come from Canton too. "Guangzhou's one of the food capitals of the world," he says. "But Chinese people love parts of the animal that Westerners don't know." He's pointing to the chafing dishes. The chicken feet ($4.50 lb), pork stomach ($4.50 lb), duck feet and wings (cheaper at $1.65 lb), intestines ($5 lb), and, uh, pig rectum, at $5.50 lb. Each rectum is pallid, wrinkly, maybe six inches long.
I can't leave without trying it. I know they must scrub, steam, boil, simmer this stuff till, well, you know, it's as pure as it has to be.
"Uh, give me just a couple of squiggles of intestine, and, like, half a rectum."
"Great delicacy in Guangzhou," says Chow, slicing off half a rectum, then chopping it into half-inch chunks.
"Here," says Tom. She hands me another pot of her husband's secret soy sauce.
So I sit down, take my deep breath. This is a delicacy, I tell myself.
The tight curls of intestines feel and taste a little rubbery; it's like chewing a nutty telephone cord. But, hey, you could get used to this. The rectum…actually it's less rubbery, more tasty, more delicate. A bit…gamey. That's it.
Put it this way: This is no typical Chinese takeout. It's the real deal. Walk in here, you feel you're walking slap-dab into China itself. More China than Olympics-obsessed Beijing, I'll bet. I'll definitely be back to Chow's auntie's place -- at least for the whole BBQ-pork deal.
As for the rest -- I mean, I know the Chinese must think we Westerners are such wimps -- well, I'll learn to handle chowing down these new parts, and maybe even love it.
Jes' gotta train myself to stop thinking so goldurned much.
- The Place: Tom’s Chinese BBQ, 4414 University Avenue #A, Talmadge 619-563-8225
- Type of Food: Chinese
- Prices: roast ribs, $8.50 lb; roast pork, $7.75 lb; BBQ pork, $6.50 lb; BBQ spare ribs, $6.35 lb; BBQ pork fried rice, $3.50 (large), $2 (small); duck, $17 lb; BBQ pork dumpling, 80 cents; coconut roll, 70 cents; sticky rice plate, $3; egg bun ($3.50)
- Hours: 10:00 a.m.–7:30 p.m., Monday–Friday; 9:30 a.m.–7:30 p.m., Saturday, Sunday
- Buses: 7, 10
Nearest Bus Stop: University at Fairmount