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Penkava: One man’s quest for the perfect egg roll

I’m not sure why they are called “egg rolls.” They don’t look like eggs. They don’t taste like eggs. They don’t even roll like eggs … they kinda make an awkward cylindrical rotation while leaving a slight trail of some kind of liquid fat. Quite unegglike.

But the etymology of this magnificent creation is not important. What is important is it is a deliciously deep-fried golden tube of unidentifiable ingredients wrapped up in an easy-to-handle stuff-in-your-mouth shape. I like to think of an egg roll as an Oriental Twinkie.

The first egg rolls I ever ate as a child were the frozen kind my mother bought at the food store. They were made by a company called “Chung King.” This company was started by Jeno Paulucci, the son of Italian immigrants. Somehow he had gotten hold of an old world Italian recipe for Chinese appetizers, and, mama mia … datsa spicy egg roll!

I was quite satisfied with the taste of my euro-chino snacks for several years. In 1966, Mr. Paulucci sold his Chung King business. Guess who bought it? Yep, the most logical buyer of an Oriental food company would be the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Evidently the market for smoked menthol-spiced egg rolls was about ready to explode.

It was a bit later that I got my first taste of a real Chinese restaurant-style egg roll, after finally kicking my Chung King habit by wearing a nicotine/bamboo shoot patch. The name of the restaurant was Sunny Eng’s, located in Crystal Lake. My first reaction was that I couldn’t believe the size of their egg rolls. They made Chung King look like Chung Peasant.

But it was the taste that left me speechless. That, and the yellow hot mustard sauce that burned out my nose hairs and fried my vocal chords. Sure, the Kung Bao Chicken was tasty, and the Yu Hsiang Pork was succulent, but it was the egg rolls that held my taste buds hostage.

When Sunny Eng sold his restaurant in 1994 and it became New Sunny’s, I was much relieved to see that all of the old recipes had remained unchanged.

Best of all, the egg rolls arrived as they always did: golden cylinders of sprouty stuff wrapped in crunchy Chinese warmth, served with toxic yellow emulsion.

But then it happened. New Sunny’s announced it was closing. I remember having dinner there on its last night. I even got to take home one of the menus and a dining chair as mementos. But alas, no more Sunny’s egg rolls. What would I do?

I set off on my quest for the perfect egg roll. For several months I took my wife to a number of perfectly fine Chinese restaurants, but, sadly, nothing could match the taste I had grown to love. I was ready to accept the fact that that is how the fortune cookie crumbles when I made an amazing discovery. I discovered that relatives of the family that had owned New Sunny’s were operating a Chinese restaurant in Algonquin called China Bistro. Could it be that they were still offering the same recipe for egg rolls?

We quickly made a visit to their restaurant. As we sat at our table and I opened the menu, I couldn’t believe my eyes … it was virtually the same as my old restaurant! Why, they even had a house specialty called “Sunny’s Special.” You could have knocked me over with an almond cookie!

Well, you probably can predict the rest of the story. My quest for the perfect egg roll was finally over. And, unbelievably, it was exactly what my fortune cookie said: “Something will happen today.” How did they know that?

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He invites you to discover the perfect egg roll at China Bistro. Remember, Confucius says, “I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I eat egg roll, I understand.” He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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