In the Hunan province of China you'll find General Tso's museum, General Tso's hotel, General Tso's elementary school, even General Tso's liquor. But there's no General Tso's chicken. That sticky-sweet, deep-fried dish that most Americans associate with Chinese food? It's not—well, not really—Chinese food.
And, to the proprietor of the Golden Goose food truck, that's the whole point. Executive chef Isaac Deboer started the venture last July as a pop-up, hosted by Picnic. The truck was based in Greensboro during its infancy, where general manager Freddie Gentilie lived at the time, before settling in Durham in February.
Deboer hopes that the truck will serve as a springboard for an eventual brick-and-mortar, where the menu can expand past the practical limitations of their current kitchen. (The truck was originally designed to serve burgers, so it has no wok ranges.)
"The goose is a simple concept," its website reads, "stemming from the idea that Chinese food has asserted itself as part of American cuisine." Or, as the dictionary puts it, a golden goose is "a continuing source of profit that may be exhausted if misused." Remember Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 one, not the Johnny Depp one)? Veruca Salt gets greedy about Wonka's golden geese ("I want it now!"), only to fall down a garbage chute that leads to a furnace.
In the easy interpretation, America is Veruca and Chinese food is the golden goose. American culture gluttonized Chinese culinary traditions and earned the "inauthentic" (read: bad) reputation that American-Chinese is often saddled with. But that couldn't be what the truck is getting at, right?
The other interpretation flips Veruca on her head: American-Chinese food isn't inauthentic Chinese. It's authentic American-Chinese, not a consolation prize, not second place. Rather, the cuisine's accessibility, ubiquity, and popularity is all culinary gold.
If a fusion style lives somewhere long enough, it outgrows its parents' home and finds its own place, sets its own rules, and eventually adopts its own recipe canon.
The Golden Goose's concise menu embodies that concept. There are crab claw rangoons—deep-fried and cream cheese-filled, dreamy with a dead-cold IPA—stir-fried noodles, and chicken. Lots of chicken. Wings. "Strange Flavor Chicken"—that is, cold-poached, with a Sichuan dressing. Sesame, as expected. And, of course, General Tso's. I order this first.
It's a Friday night, breezy with starry skies. Surf Club, where the cayenne-colored truck parks on Wednesday through Sunday nights, is stretching at the seams, like pork-fried rice in a takeout box. There is beer drinking and bocce playing, rowdy groups of friends and whispery first dates. If businesses hinge on location, location, location, the Golden Goose doesn't even have to try.
I'm told five minutes for my chicken, but it's closer to fifteen before they track me down amid the crowd. In the meantime, I stare at the photo-illustrated menu, which pays playful homage to the original golden goose: the American-Chinese food takeout joint.
The General Tso's stares back. The picture features craggy, crunchy chicken. Spicy, sweet sauce. It shimmers, even glows, hugging the dark meat's nooks and crannies, kissing the broccoli florets, and surrounding the mound of white rice like a moat around a mountain.
Or, it doesn't.
The General Tso's I am served has no crag and no crunch. Its sauce is as thick as water. Its rice is dry, in an old-rice kind of way. And the $9 portion is so small—six half-bite hunks—that I side-eye the dog wandering around the bar, wondering if he got to my dinner first. My friend and I bicker over our smacked cucumbers, half because they're garlicky and good, half because we're hungry.
But my fortune cookie offers some advice: "Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity." Taking that as a sign, I go back a week later to try the General Tso's again. This time, the sauce is thicker and punchier, and my portion is precisely twice the size of the first one.
If the Golden Goose has a consistency, it is inconsistency. For nine dollars—the menu's default price—you'll either leave stuffed like an egg roll or head over to Pie Pushers for a second dinner.
If you'd rather the former, try the St. Paul sandwich. In this Missouri "classic," egg foo yung is sandwiched between a white, squishy bun, piled with char siu pork shoulder, and smothered with spicy mayo. It's the best thing that could happen to you when you're drunk.
The glass noodles, with a coconut-y sauce and some sad, neglected tofu, are almost as hearty and filling. But you'll spend as much time untangling the noodles as you will eating them.
Opt, instead, for the smaller dan dan noodles, a Sichuanese staple typically consisting of wheat noodles dressed with chili oil and black vinegar, topped with ground meat and sometimes vegetables. The Golden Goose's take features a five-spice twang and pickled mustard greens that, like a good hot sauce, wham-bam through the fat with a one-two punch of vinegar and heat.
It is this sort of shimmer that makes me think that the truck may stay gold after all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Good for the Goose."