"Have an egg roll, Mr. Goldstone ."
If it wasn't for that egg roll, Gypsy Rose Lee might have ended her days slinging hash in Hoboken. But Gypsy went on to become the queen of burlesque, and Mr. Goldstone's egg roll grew into the star of Chinese carryout.
Not everyone, however, thinks the trip has been worth it.
Aline Berman, owner of the Court of the Mandarins, has very strong ideas on the evolution of the egg roll. "It's an abomination, an American adulteration!"
As she tells it, egg rolls were doing quite well in Northern China a few hundred years ago until the Southern Chinese cut into the action. The Northern cooks would chop up chunky bits of pork, chicken breast and shrimp (and, if they were feeling daring, a sea cucumber or two). No bean sprouts, no bok choy, no stringy stuff. They would wrap the meat in a light crispy pancake and then deep-fry the stuffed pastry.
"Northerners are more experienced in handling noodles which make a light dough. Southerners are not," Berman explains. She is Northerner.
The egg roll that came to America with Mr. Goldstone and his Cantonese Immigrant Wok and Roll band was thick-skinned, and contained bean sprouts and other vegetables as well as meat and/or shrimp.
The original cigar-thin egg roll still survives, however. It is called a spring roll and is found almost exclusively in Northern Chinese restaurants, those that feature "Mandarin" or "Peking" cuisine. (The spring roll skin is made ay touching a round ball of dough lightly to a hot pan which produces a light crispy pancake.)
Spring rolls or egg rolls. Which came first" There are at least two theories.
One is that the Chinese words for "egg" and "spring" sound so much alike that waiters, cooks and diners all became confused. The other (in which Berman delights) is that spring rolls are given as presents on the New Year (the start of spring on the lunar calendar). When fried, the crispy bundles resembled gold bars and were offered in hopes that everyone would be rich and successful in the coming year. Supposedly they became egg rolls when the southern Chinese, who couldn't make a thin noodle from water and flour, stuck an egg into the batter, and flattened it out.
Berman is not only offended by the "adulterated" American egg roll skin, but she blanches at the thought of the filling.
"One of the things I don't like about the American egg roll is when you bite into it all these stringy things come out. This is very offensive to the Chinese. When they come to this country and eat an American egg roll they say 'What is that!'
The answer is many things to many Washington area Chinese restaurants.
That diversity prompted our staff to undertake an egg roll taste-test which produced the following results:
THE HONORABLE ROLL
The Golden Palace, 726 7th Street NW: The hostess with the dress slit up the side wasn't thrilled about a take-out order of one egg roll (which turned out to be a spring roll). But the wrapper was as flaky as phyllo dough and the filling uniquely different -- short julienne strips of mysterious crunchy bits bathed in a sauce with a slight almond taste. Unfortunately, a little on the greasy side.
Moon Palace, 3308 Wisconsin Ave. NW: None of those little plastic tubes of mustard and duck sauce here. the sauce comes in nice little plastic tubs with replaceable lids. The egg roll had a crunchy outside and colorful purple glazed pork inside. Count the gold Chinese "rococo" dragons while you wait and grab a pack of matches. They're colorful too.
Seven Seas, 5915 Georgia Ave. NW: If the art deco dining room doesn't distract you, the egg rolls will -- crispy skin, no grease and chunks of fresh meat.
Shanghai, 1201 Fidler Lane, Silver Spring: This big, chubby egg roll was bursting with filling. The noticeable bits were shredded bok choy, celery and traces of pork and shrimp. The Big Mac of egg rolls had golden arches of crunchy skin but also a tad too much grease.
Szechuan Restaurant, 615 I St. NW: Termed a "spring-eggroll," the thin, flaky skin covered a mostly cabbage filling, seasoned with ginger. There was no other like it.
Ya Shue Yuan, 2607 Wilson Blvd., Arlington: The skin was very crisp and dry and the filling was a tasty mix of greens, shrimp and pork. The waiter was charming to offer a seat to a person with such a lowly take-out order -- "One egg roll, please."
HONORABLE MENTION ROLL
Cheng Yeung, 6115 Georgia Ave. NW: If your like banking, this is the place to open an egg roll account. Poke your head through the teller's windown and withdraw a crunchy wad from the guys behind the metal screen. Some samplers found a chemical aftertaste.
Chin's 2614 Connecticut Ave NW: Having an egg roll fit? Then this will hit the spot, but you might be hungry again in a half hour. Nice fresh greens and pink bits of pork and shrimp, but not exciting.
China Doll, 627 H St. NW: Cold for breakfast it was yummy, but hot off the premises the skin was so-so crisp, the filling average.
The Great Wall 1120 19th St. NW: These plump egg rolls (you have to get two) had nuggets of red pork and shrimp, but they had a strange perfumed taste which was unwelcome. The wrapper was medium crisp.
Imperial Garden, Tysons Corner: The typical combination of shrimp, cabbage and pork makes a nice little egg roll -- great for those who aren't looking for a provocative treat.
Inn of the Eight Immortals, Seven Corners Shopping Center, Falls Church: The filling was colorful -- bits of red glazed pork and various shades of green cabbage and lettuce -- but much too salty for out tasters. The skin was too stiff and thick.
The Jade Palace, 624 H St. NW: The noodle would have been flaky and the mostly celery filling crisp if the egg roll had spent less time undr a heat lamp.
Kung-Gen, 2032 I St NW: The students at George Wahington should be pleased to have access to a crunchy, golden egg roll with chopped fresh cabbage (bok choy) in the filling. There was, however, an unfortunate taste of oil.
The Lotus, 8224 Wisconsin Ave., Becthesda: Fresh green noisy veggies, three shrimp, ground pork -- all the regulars, but no surprises.
Nanking, 2002 P St. NW: The skin was crispy enough, but the filling looked like saurkraut. Not offensive, but not distinctive.
Royal Pagoda, 2207 Wisconsin Ave. NW: You can see what's cooking because the kitchen is in the dining room. We wouldn't say that this is a vegetarian egg roll. But the very tasty filling was made of little eggy bits, bean sprouts and bok choy stir fried in what tasted like left over lobster sauce.
Szechuan Garden, 7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda: The fresh celery, bok choy, pork and shrimp are pleasantly seasoned with ginger. The meaties egg roll of the tasting was spoled by a strong chemical aftertaste wa spoiled by a strong chemical aftertaste and improper draining.
Szechuan Mandarin, 1403 L St. NW: The wait was about 15 minutes, but the egg roll had a nice peppery kick to it. The egg, mushroom, pork and bok choy filling was a bit too dry and the skin doughy, however.
Tai-Tung, 622 H St. NW: The smoky chicken flavor was interesting. But hold the grease, please.
Trudie Ball's Empress, 1018 Vermont Ave. NW: Nothing ventured, nothing gained -- a standard egg roll that would neither excite nor offend anyone.
Yenching Palace, 3524 Connecticut Ave. NW: Tis small and thin egg roll had a crispy wrapper, with a decent filling, but it wasn't fully cooked. It was doughy and raw at the end where the wrapper folds.
NOT SO HONORABLE ROLL
David Lee's Empress, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW: At least you don't have to wait long. The egg rolls were sitting in an aluminum pan under a heat lamp soaking up grease. The noodle was the consistency of wet cardboard and the filling was of a similar color.
The Far East, 5071 Nicholson Lane, Bethesda: The skin was so soggy, raw and thick even the Pillsbury doughboy would be intimidated.
Hu Yuan, 3211 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington: It looked very innocent at first, but when a co-taster bit into it a stream of grease came out the other end. And it was too salty.
Ruby Restaurant, 609 H St. NW: Their dim sum might be the bees knees, but the egg roll is a must to be missed.
Szechuan-Peking, 7944 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda: It is said to be good menners that if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all.
Chun-King Frozen Meat & Shrimp Egg Rolls: The last, and the least CAPTION:
Illustration 1, no caption, by Donald Gates for The Washington Post; Illustration 2, "Year of the Ram"; Illustration 3, no caption