Lunch pal Greg Jung opened his car door and made the “get in” gesture. He was parked in front of the tiny Lam Kwong Deli & Market (2031 12th St., Sacramento, 916-443-8805) and wanted to share a few delicacies in honor of Chinese New Year before we headed to West Sacramento for lunch.
Greg is Chinese American and a veteran foodie (“an amateur expert”) who has led this column to a number of four-star Asian restaurants, including Ryu Jin Ramen House in Sacramento, Lotus 8 in Folsom and Hidden Sichuan in Elk Grove.
He opened a bag full of cha siu bao (barbecued pork-filled buns), siu mai (pork-filled steamed dumplings) and har gow (shrimp-filled steamed dumplings) from Lam Kwong. Though it’s true that food tastes better when consumed inside a car (especially in the back seat), the three treats showed just how good simple Chinese food can be.
Greg also revealed a cut-up whole soy sauce-marinated chicken from the Hing Long Supermarket (aka Asian Food Center, 1301 Broadway, Sacramento, 916 448-4397). Later, most of the delicious chicken became lunch for a bunch of appreciative people.
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Chinese New Year (Feb. 8-22) is all about good luck and prosperity (and eating), Greg explained. He recalled the traditional family feast he’d prepared at home on New Year’s Day, including a whole fish, a whole chicken and the traditional lo han jai, a platter of thin noodles with veggies, tofu, ginger, garlic and dried oysters, among other ingredients. It’s also known as “Buddha’s delight.”
Greg fired up his car and we drove away, talking about our destination, Peace Cuisine. It has a backstory: When several partners opened Lotus 8 in the summer of 2013, they hired veteran chef and Cantonese-cuisine specialist Eric Kuang to oversee the kitchen. Previously, during his years of cooking in Hawaii, a master chef from Hong Kong mentored him and “passed on all his cooking know-how, including his secret recipes,” one of the partners told me at the time.
Running the front of the house was accommodating general manager Michael Chow, whose mantra was and remains, “If you don’t see what you want, tell us what you like and we will create a menu for you.”
Time passed, and restaurant politics being what they are – mostly unpredictable – Kuang and Chow left Lotus 8 to become business partners and open Peace Cuisine 14 months ago in a relatively low-overhead space in a shopping center not far from Raley Field and even closer to City Hall. Most of their business is takeout, Chow said, but the small place can get crowded on weekends when motorists returning to the Bay Area from Lake Tahoe find it a quick and easy stop.
So that’s how Greg and I found ourselves at Peace Cuisine, looking at a menu of surprisingly mainstream dishes – general’s chicken, orange chicken, wor wonton soup, honey walnut shrimp, salt-and-pepper tofu and the like. That’s because Chow and Kuang learned soon after opening that the West Sacramento demographic seems most comfortable with familiar choices and is yet to discover the abilities of the restaurant’s four-star chef, who can turn out anything. Just give Chow advance notice for special requests.
We began with a bowl of wor wonton soup chock full of tender dumplings, pork, beef, chicken, shrimp and shallots in rich, from-scratch chicken broth.
Peace’s best-seller, general’s chicken, was a mound of cut-up chicken breast coated in a light, crisp jacket and covered in viscous tangy-sweet sauce unlike any we’ve tasted.
“What’s in the sauce?” we asked Chow. “Honey with vinegar and chili pepper?”
Chow translated the question to Kuang and got an answer. “It’s his secret; he won’t tell anybody,” Chow said with a shrug.
A plate of al dente “house string beans” arrived – seasoned with jalapeño and spices, tasting char-y from the hot wok – followed by a mix of veggies (broccoli, zucchini, string beans, bell pepper, carrot, napa cabbage) and shrimp (20 of ’em), crispy and glistening in a thin glaze of a second sauce.
We got lucky when Chow told us Kuang had made “Chinese-style fried chicken” as a New Year special. The fowl air-dries for two days “to give it that crisp skin,” Chow said. It was the best dish on the table – well-seasoned and succulent, with the kind of dark, semi-brittle skin that home cooks aspire to. Order ahead.
A few days later I went back for a plate of wokked Singapore vermicelli, studded with slices of pork, plump prawns, onion, bean sprouts and eggs. Another winner.
The way it stands, Peace Cuisine is one of those archetypal hole-in-the-wall discoveries that shocks diners with its quality, freshness of ingredients, portion size and fair prices ($5 to $14, with lunch specials at $8 to $10).
Caboosed to that is this: Greg owns a State Farm Insurance agency in Sacramento and “lives in the land of of risk management.” Would he insure Peace? “Yes, it has great customer service and sells a quality product,” he said. “I believe it will become an institution in West Sacramento and beyond.”
If it matters to you, there is no MSG on the premises. “If the food has enough flavor, why would you need to use it?” Chow said.
Where: 829 Jefferson Blvd., West Sacramento, in the Walgreens shopping center.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily
How much: $-$$