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Chasing Chang

A mysterious Szechwan chef sends tongues wagging.

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Peter Chang is not in Alexandria, Atlanta or San Antonio. As of a couple of weeks ago, the Szechwan chef is no longer in Charlottesville either, much to the dismay of the hordes of central Virginians and others who swamped Taste of China restaurant when word got out he was cooking there.

And he's not in Richmond, at least not yet.

Chang is in Florida. After cooking at six different restaurants in four years, the man clearly needs a vacation.

Chang was discovered cooking at China Star in Fairfax in 2005, and soon developed a following that could be described as loyal, if one considers stalkers to be loyal. Food bloggers and enthusiastic eaters across the Southeast began tracking his every move, and then lamenting his inevitable disappearing act. In the Oxford American last month, Todd Kliman, food critic for Washingtonian magazine, described his “crazed pursuit” of chef Chang, and revealed his most recent stop in Charlottesville. Then the March 1 New Yorker hit the newsstands with a Calvin Trillin profile of the chef and the obsessed so-called Changians who follow him, including descriptions of the food at Taste of China. Central Virginia had hit the Chang jackpot.

I was so eager to get to Taste of China, I took my daughters, ages 2 and 4, to Charlottesville for lunch the day after I read Kliman's article. We discovered, true to Chang form, a nondescript storefront in a strip mall. Likewise, the interior was a generic dining room with only Chang's framed certificates on the wall to confirm we were in the master's presence. 

Once the food started coming, the articles, the accolades and the growing line of waiting customers all made sense. Intensely spicy, crispy shrimp with scallions and mounds of fried onions, wonton soup with a clear broth that sang with clean chicken flavor, and puffy, heavenly scallion pancakes — it was like eating Chinese food for the first time. My daughters, who consider pizza to be adventurous eats, scarfed down vegetable lo mein and chicken with broccoli.

I dragged my family back to C-ville the following Sunday, hoping to arrive early to avoid the crowds. Apparently the crowds and I were thinking alike. The system for landing a table involved elbowing our way to the hostess station to grab a slip of paper with a scribbled number, and then eyeing the numbers of the folks around us to establish who was next. The overwhelmed and unsmiling hostess at one point handed the phone to a waiting customer so he could take down an order for her.

I'm still not sure if there was just a severe language barrier between us and our server, or if she wanted us to work very, very hard for our food. Most of what we tried to order was supposedly unavailable, yet we saw the tables around us receiving those same dishes. We helped ourselves to silver, chopsticks and napkins. We flagged down multiple waiters for beers, and asked twice for rice. By the end of the meal I was so nervous and exhausted I didn't know what I had eaten. I seem to remember a whole fried fish with jalapenos. My husband raved about his wonton soup. I couldn't identify any actual chicken meat in the crispy chicken. I needed to go back. 

It was another 10 days before I could make a return trip, and I feared that the soul-draining crowds the place was drawing might have already scared away chef Chang.  Sure enough, I noticed the bare spots on the wall where his certificates had been. The same hostess, who seemed to be the owner, acknowledged the chef had left abruptly, and didn't know his whereabouts. Still, the fried eggplant and the roast fish with green onions were glorious.

After hearing rumors that Chang might come to Richmond, I track him down on the phone. He connects me with his English-speaking business partner, Gen Lee. He confirms that the two men are looking near Short Pump, possibly in West Broad Village, for a 5,000-square-foot space to seat 200. This place will be different, Lee says — “no more ma and pa.” Lee maintains that Chang has abandoned previous restaurants because he feared he couldn't maintain quality with the overwhelming crowds, and that his reputation would be ruined. “He's completely burnt out,” Lee says. He couldn't say for sure whether or when they will open the new place, but for now, don't go looking for Peter Chang. The chef is on vacation.

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