Saturday on the mountain.
I am rudely awoken at what seems like an unbearable hour - actually only 8:30, which is late for me - and dragged off to Mt. Rainier. One flat tire (fortunately not too far from home) and a two-hour drive later, we are at Paradise. This time, sadly, we do not stop for McDonald's on the way. It is too late for an Egg McMuffin by the time we make it that far, having lost a crucial half-hour by having to examine the (rapidly deflating) tire and returning home to exchange cars (if not tires). It is almost summer, but on the mountain the snow is still ten feet hight on the trail, although the roads are clear, save for a few that remain closed. We have lunch in the dining room of the newly-remodeled Paradise Inn (currently mostly staffed by Singaporean exchange students here to make enough money to travel around the States for the rest of the summer), decent but uninteresting, and then head over to the visitor's center to look at the view, still somewhat obscured by the clouds. I have never been up to Mt. Rainier so early in the season, and it is discombobulating to see the trails and meadows covered in several feet of snow.
Back in the car, the talk turns to food. Our guests have been traveling in the United States for nearly two weeks now, and they are tired of American food, however much they enjoyed the dinner at Lark the night before. My mother proposes a stop at Ranch 99, with dinner at the restaurant next door, on the way home. I promise to make congee for breakfast tomorrow night, and to cook dinner another night next week, both suggestions which are met with a considerable amount of enthusiasm. We find ourselves at the Great Wall Shopping Center in Renton, just south of Seattle, and head into Imperial Garden for dinner. (Most excursions to Mt. Rainier begin with breakfast at the McDonalds in Spanaway and end with dinner at Imperial Garden in Renton. I don't know why).
The restaurant is a big room filled with round tables and elaborately carved chairs, easily divided by rolling partitions for large parties (weddings, banquets, and so forth); it is mostly empty save for a few families scattered around, with one birthday party holding forth at a corner table. There are tanks of live seafood and a small bar and a tv screen displaying various special dishes that are not on the menu. We order soup and live shrimp and live crab and simply cooked vegetables and some tofu dishes and talk about our day. I am not really expecting much from our meal, what with my lifelong fear of Chinese restaurants in America and their tendency to let me down. The best part of our dinner is the quickly boiled (or steamed) live spot shrimp, huge and sweet and just cooked through, with a slightly spicy-sweet soy dipping sauce. The crab is cooked with ginger and scallions, the celery stir-fried with dried tofu and shreds of pork, the Chinese broccoli cooked with garlic, all of them unnecessarily weighed down with a heavy, cornstarch-thickened sauce.
There is a beef soup with drops of egg white and the sharp sting of cilantro, bowls of rice, the long-grained white rice so different from the medium-grained Japanese rice I am used to, fluffy and sweet, instead of firm and clean-tasting. Y., who is half-Japanese, used to speak disdainfully of this Chinese rice as "popcorn rice. It is a good enough dinner, but it makes me long for simpler things made without cornstarch or MSG, a more refined kind of cooking. I remember a few days ago, D. accused me of not liking Chinese food. Which is not true; what I don't like is American Chinese restaurants, with their gluey sauces obscuring perfectly fine ingredients. There is good Chinese food to be found, but it is hard, and it is rarely better than home cooking. I live for my trips to Taiwan or China, or even up to Vancouver (although I find myself in Taiwan or China more frequently than I find myself in Vancouver), and dinners at home when my parents are here, and at the homes of friends.
After dinner we go to Ranch 99, a different world from the American supermarket, with aisles crammed with brightly colored boxes of candies and cookies and crackers, instant noodles of all flavors, shelf after shelf of soy sauces and hot sauces and vinegars and oils of all kinds. The floor seems to always look a little grimy; the fluorescent lights feel a bit more glaring. The meat aisle smells like meat; tanks of seafood burble away. We scan the aisle filled with cans and jars of a countryside's worth of pickled vegetables, looking for just the right one to eat with tomorrow morning's congee, stock up on rice wine for cooking and vinegar for dipping boiled dumplings and live crab or shrimp and soy sauce for, well, everything, and some tight-skinned fresh ginger for whatever I can think of in the days to come.