Is China Gourmet the Best General Tso’s in Midtown? (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Thing That Hopitalized Me in 1996)
I have a secret relationship with General Tso’s Chicken. Maybe secret isn’t the best word for it. Love/Hate? Nah… that doesn’t really do it either. Hate is not a word I would ever use to describe my feelings toward any kind of Chinese food (even the most Americanized dishes.) So maybe it’s an affair. I know it’s bad for me. I know it’s an American invention. I know much better food can be had in Flushing or Manhattan’s Chinatown, or on Sunday mornings in a Dim Sum house (my other Chinese food addiction). But there is a special place in my heart for the General. (Tso or Gau, it doesn’t really make a difference to me.)
My addiction started in college, when General Tso’s Chicken from Golden Light in Somerville, MA (go Jumbos!) became my go to second dinner. If you never went to college, second dinner is the meal you eat around one in the morning, a full 6-7 hours after eating “dinner” in the dining hall, thereby making it a totally acceptable 4th meal of the day (3rd for those of us who didn’t wake up until Noon.) That is where it started. It ended about halfway through my sophomore year, when I had to go to the hospital one day with horrible stomach pains that would not go away. My friends joked that maybe eating General Tso’s chicken every single night at 1am for over a month isn’t such a good idea. Ok… so maybe they weren’t “joking”, although in the General’s defense, it only allegedly put me in the hospital. It was never proven. It’s not like when I was admitted, the Doctor looked at my chart and said, “This is clearly a case of eating cheap Chinese food every night for an entire month!” So we don’t really know for a fact that it was the Chinese food. We can only speculate. And quite frankly, it could have been anything giving me those horrible stomach pains, which thankfully ended up going away on their own.
Needless to say, I cut back (slightly) on the General Tso’s after that. But I still love it, and although I eat only eat in sparingly now, the craving does come up every so often for those crispy chunks of chicken, covered in spicy, sweet, gooey sauce. So when I saw Lawrence (aka Superman, aka NYCFoodGuy) write that the best General Tso’s chicken in Midtown West is at China Gourmet on 8th Ave. btw. 52+53rd, I knew my mission was clear: use his post as an excuse to eat General Tso’s chicken.
It’s always tough whenever somebody sends you somewhere that is supposedly “the best”. They’re only setting the place up for failure, because immediately your expectations are heightened, and you become much more critical than the original person probably was being when they discovered the random place and were surprised by how much better it was than they expected. Luckily, my goal was not to decide whether Lawrence was right in calling this the best. I just wanted to eat some freakin’ General Tso’s.
Wanting to follow the specific instructions of the person who sent me there, I did something I’ve never before in all my years of eating cheap Chinese food. I asked for white meat only, which costs an extra $1. I never gave it much thought, but I think there are a few reasons I’ve never done this. 1) I’m cheap. 2) Dark or “weird” meat at Asian restaurants has never bothered me, and 3) I’m cheap. If the dish doesn’t taste good at its cheapest price point, I would always just go somewhere else. It never occurred to me ask for white meat at a Chinese restaurant (although when it comes to Thai food, I have to admit there are a few Thai Town places in L.A. where I did employ this technique with excellent results.)
After eating the dish, I have to say the white meat thing definitely works for people who like to have whole chunks of identifiable meat in their Chinese food. But it made me realize at the same time, that just like with regular fried chicken, dark meat is just tastier. It has more fat, and more flavor, and when they use white meat in chicken dishes like General Tso’s I think it might make the dish a little more sterile tasting (which kind of defeats the point of cheap Chinese food to me).
That being said, the dish was cooked fresh and served hot, slightly spicy, they give you a *ton* of food, it was cheap and I enjoyed every single bite of it. But I hope this General Tso’s is not the best Midtown has to offer (admittedly I’ve maybe only tried 4-5 of the 30 versions you could probably get). It wasn’t as crunchy as I would have liked it to be (even though I ate it there, so it wouldn’t steam in the package), the sauce was a little too gooey for my tastes (I like it with a little less cornstarch so what doesn’t stick to the chicken pools up at the bottom instead of glooping up between the chunks), and I like it when they sautee the broccoli with the chicken (it makes eating vegetables much more tolerable!) Also worth mentioning, even though it has nothing to do with the chicken, the fried rice was pretty weak, but I did enjoy the egg roll.
The key point really is “I enjoyed every bite” and China Gourmet is for sure worthy of being added to the official list of Midtown Lunches. It may not be better than Hing Won or Szechuan Gourmet, but for a cheap Chinese food place, everything is made fresh, it’s fairly quick and they seem to have a lot of fans (the place was like a train station, with people shuttling in and out every few minutes with bags of hot food.) Thanks for the recommendation Lawrence!
- Everything is made to order
- Fairly fast for made to order food
- Really large portions
- They have an “all white meat” option for an extra $1 for people who don’t like weird bits of meat in their Chinese chicken dishes where the meat is breaded and fried
- Good flavor on the General Tso’s
- The egg roll was good and comes wtih the combo (or you can swap it out for soup)
- Too much corn starch in the General Tso’s sauce
- The white meat makes the dish taste a little too sterile (I think the dark meat give it more flavor)
- The broccoli wasn’t sauteed in with the chicken
- The fried rice is plain and boring
China Gourmet, 877 8th Avenue (btw 52+53rd), 212-246-8181