The Roof is On Fire! (Dining at Lucky Strike)
I awoke this morning, uncertain of whether the ache in my stomach was caused by indigestion, or last night’s repeated and uncontrollable bouts of laughter. My friends and I ventured to Lucky Strike, way out on 122nd and Powell (is that Gresham?). Like the group of Chinese students who took the bus to get there, with my first step inside the restaurant I knew it was worth it. Breathing in there is like breathing fire – deep into the dinner service there’s that much spice in the air.
My eyes popped when I saw the finished plate of “hot pepper chicken bath” on a table next to us. It was not empty at all. It was full - of whole, red, chilis. Apparently, when it’s served, cubes of chicken are scattered through them. I’ll admit that I was a little bit afraid of what I was going to force my body to experience. But at this place, flavor and heat combined in a harmonious way that takes over your entire being to provide one of the most experiential dining experiences I’ve ever had.
What ended up being my favorite dish arrived first – pork ribs with noodles. Oh, where do I start – just recalling it makes my mouth water for this savory soup. This thing had umami. Chewy (surely fresh) noodles, baby bok choi and small pieces of pork ribs in this red, oily broth flavored with chili, whole Szechuan peppercorn, clove, star anise, dried orange peel, and a myriad other spices. These are the owner’s family recipes, and she was sweet enough to divulge only a few ingredients.
With this first dish, the reactions began to occur – the extreme degree of heat contained in this meal eventually caused each of us to lose control of our bodies to some degree. After devouring a first bowl of this soup, my friend’s face turned red and broke out into beads of sweat.
Then the spicy cumin beef arrived, buried under those said whole chili peppers, alongside strings of Chinese celery. The spice in this dish turned things up, and with that all of our lips burned red and puffy, and we took turns taking breaks for ice-cold beer and laughter. You have to laugh at yourself when you don’t want to stop eating something that is causing you physical pain and distortion. It was liberating, actually. We started to lose control, but didn’t care, and were more than happy to dribble hot rice from our flaming mouths upon discovering that it only further ignited the fire burning within.
The dan dan noodles (a cult Chinese comfort food) were something I’d always wanted to try, and their spiciness seemed calming compared to everything else. The noodles were perfectly chewy – did I say that already? Thank god for beer and white rice.
Then came that masochistic chicken. At least I knew what to expect after the beef, and my friend was right – the whole chilis add a nice texture to the bite of chicken, and no added heat really, since all of its seeds fell out to basically encrust the bits of meat. (Warning: some chilies can still be full of seeds and if you bite into one of those with the chicken, you’re playing with fire my friend).
I do have a regret about last nights’ meal: not ordering one of the more delicately flavored dishes first so that we could actually taste it. As it was, I loved the kimchi fried rice. Bits of ham (spam?), kimchi, browned egg (the egg bites did a surprisingly good job of cooling things down) and scallions. I also regret not taking home the leftovers.
Then, THEN, lastly comes the tofu (my friend rationalized this one saying “yeah, the tofu will be like dessert – it’s soft and custard like”). No, this thing was packing heat too! Large cubes of pillowy white tofu soaked under a layer of chili oil, along with ground meat, scallions and ginger. The way that the aromatic spices are layered between layers of heat – that’s how they nail these dishes. That flavor was so rich, so deep, I knew it, despite the fact that could no longer trust my taste buds. I can’t wait to go back and order that again. Or anything, really.
As I sit here in my bathrobe, I wonder where those leftovers are right at this minute...
Can you see the deep layer of chilis suspended in oil over the tofu?