The things I miss most about Sweet Tomatoes are sitting across from Becky in a booth close to the salad bar (so we could refill our plates as quickly as possible); catching up with the mundaneness of our young adult life (eg my latest breakup, her latest nemesis); and absolutely exhaust the buffet of his round bowl of won-ton chicken salad. A leafy number with crispy fried won-ton strips and crunchy vegetables, the chicken salad was dressed in a sweet-savory dressing that tasted of Asian ingredients, like soy sauce and sesame oil, but that came from everywhere except Asia. The salad, which Garden Fresh debuted in 1993 and eventually renamed Wonton Happiness, would be the highlight of lunch for me, a feeling I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life.
The salad possessed the kind of wonderfully crafted quality that often comes from one culture’s interpretation (or a wild guess) of what another culture’s food might taste like, which isn’t real or fake in its origin, and persists throughout its life. and in his life a fantasy. dead. That’s because this salad — and its antecedent, traditionally “Chinese Chicken Salad,” “Asian Chicken Salad,” and, worst-case scenario, “Eastern Chicken Salad” — refers to nothing but an idea of what flavors from East Asia might to be. Think Thai Crunch Salad at California Pizza Kitchen and Chinese Chicken Salad at Cheesecake Factory, as well as Chinois Chicken Salad at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in Santa Monica. These types of dishes may not be authentic to anything other than their creators, but they can still become touchstones of food memories for those who eat them. This is good or bad depending on how you feel about the transmutation of culture, but when it comes to won-ton chicken salad, I’m thankful for its anchoring role in my life and in Becky’s as the salad that had it all.
In 2019, I was in the room with Becky at a Seattle vacation rental when she found out that her father, my Uncle Young, had died suddenly. Not enough people talk about the incredible loss of appetite that happens when you lose someone you love. By the time we got to the airport, it had been almost 24 hours since we heard the news, and Becky hadn’t eaten anything. I forced her to have a glass of red wine and chips, and luckily she did. As we made our way to the gate for our flight back to Atlanta, she turned to me and asked, “Do you think it’s better to lose someone suddenly or let them go slow?” I said what I thought she wanted to hear, and we got on the plane.
Uncle Young would have turned 65 this month. I’m sorry I never got to cook for him, but he always cooked for us cousins. His specialties were crispy lake trout with lemon pepper, bacon-wrapped filets mignons with A.1. Sauce, kielbasa cooked in Tostitos salsa and beer and grilled chicken wings infused with jalapeño, cilantro and sake. Despite his carnivorous tendencies, he would probably approve of this salad. The supportive character that makes the crispy wontons shine is the spicy dressing of canned peaches, rice vinegar, sesame oil and chili powder. The dressing’s high liquid-to-oil ratio means the salad greens stay crispy and last longer (it’s the oil in vinaigrettes, not the vinegar, that spoils lettuce), meaning you can make this the night before a gathering. to make.