The customers were all Asian, the restaurateurs hadn’t spent much on the decor, and the menu at Wah Kee had definite promise. Pork belly! I hadn’t had that since Oakland. I ordered it the first time accidentally in Boston, and then many times on purpose after that. Pork belly, people, is the bacon part of the pig. It is the part of the pig that gets the pig into heaven no matter what other bad things the pig has done, if Baby J. loves bacon as much as I do.
The waiter took our order back — wontons in broth, Singapore noodles, taro and pork belly — and a beat later, the chef came out in jeans, T-shirt, and knickers in a twist. I heard the words “pork belly.” Maybe they were out, I reasoned, and he was angry the waiter hadn’t told us. O, sad thought.
Then he marched over to our table.
“No returns!” he said. “Who ordered the pork belly?”
“That was me,” I said.
From the ensuing tirade, I gathered this: Westerners order the pork belly expecting, perhaps, chicken breast.
“People don’t appreciate it,” he said.
“Why? Is it not good?” I asked.
People come a hundred miles to Madison just for the pork belly, he said. It’s a delicacy that takes a long time to prepare. He added, defiantly, that if I wasn’t going to appreciate it, I shouldn’t order it.
“If it’s good, I’ll appreciate it,” I said, unsure how to affect the air of one intimately familiar with the belly — which, by the way, I am. “I love pork belly.”
He returned, either mollified or at least satisfied that we had a deal: no returns. A few minutes later, the noodles arrived, and it was suddenly clear that this place was serious. Fat white hand-made rice noodles slunk down my throat and satisfied a craving that has often distracted me from important business, over the last two years, ever since I left Oakland.
And then the pork belly sailed over to the table. Squares of soft taro alternated with squares of soft, fatty pork belly in a circle, like fallen dominoes. All drenched in a thick brown sauce (my ignorant best guess: fermented beans and pork).
The chef came out just as I’d stuffed the first bite in my mouth.
“How is it?” he asked, semi-accusingly.
I pointed to my craw.
“Oh sorry,” he said.
I swallowed and gave him the thumbs-up.
“I love it,” I said.
We talked about pork belly dishes for a couple of minutes. I’d had it as twice-cooked pork, but not with taro. He seemed mystified that I’d had it at all. I felt like he wasn’t expecting me to be a card-carrying member of the Secret Pork Belly Appreciation Society (which, if you think about it, must have a few hundred million members, so isn’t terribly exclusive).
“Did you go to China?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Boston.”