Peking House – 782 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

UPDATE: This restaurant has closed, which is too bad because they did prepare some unusual to American palate Chinese dishes. I'm not sure if they have, or are, opening at another location. There's something new in this location I haven't tried. This may be the most oddball block in downtown Milwaukee, so it's always worth checking out. It's almost impossible to keep up with the changes. 

Chinese food and a gluten-free diet go together like two things that just do not go together. If you can find a place that is GF friendly, as indicated on their menu, or a wait-person you can communicate well with, you can make it work, but otherwise you have to order somewhat conservatively. It's obvious if something is breaded or not, if it's rice noodles or noodles made with wheat, but the tricky thing is soy sauce. Most of the world's soy sauce is made with wheat as its major ingredient. Some is not. So you've got to know what's in the kitchen or just order a dish that uses no soy sauce, which really limits you. If this was the only restaurant in town, I'd get to know them, and hope for a successful marriage. I'd love to visit here with a Chinese friend (I have no friends), or if I was Jonathan Gold. I am not, however, him—I'm not even Long John Silver.

I stopped at Peking House on an off night—there were only a few diners besides myself, possibly not the usual employees—and it's the kind of big place that feels weird when it's empty. Sports were on the large TVs, and the empty lunch buffet sat coldly off to one side (never a good look; the problem with lunch buffets is when they're not in service they really give a melancholy air to a room). I ordered a chicken, vegetables, with white sauce dish. As mundane and kind of boring as this is, I'm always kind of amazed how American Chinese food tastes exactly like what it is, and nothing else. I find it delicious, and also there is a nostalgic appeal. As I'm a cheapie, I wish it was cheaper, but this is average priced for a Chinese restaurant, and to be expected, as this is a prime downtown Milwaukee location, within blocks of the best hotels. As usual, there was enough food for two, so I had some to take home, and as usual it lost its appeal after the corn starch coagulated. The other thing that kind of bummed me out was that they charged me for the hot tea, which many places do not. It's often almost automatic—hot tea, no extra charge, like the fortune cooky. It was a pretty good pot of tea, though.

When I am unable to be excited about food, I hope a place can buoy my spirits, but this restaurant falls uncomfortably between the upscale and the kind of funky and weird, and not in a good way. Like I said, it was an off night, and not all its fault. Two groups of diners who arrived, as I was finishing, seemed to be Chinese, which is a good sign, as far as cuisine goes, and looking over the menu, I'd say that it's almost insanely ambitious, or else a really good place—if you're dietarily able, and curiously adventurous—to go very deep. To end on a positive note, there over a hundred dishes you might want to check out, including several preparations of rabbit, duck, and whole fish. Also, frog. Pig ear and pig intestines. Also, lamb, and lots of fish, octopus, shrimp, and squid. A big vegetable section, including lotus root and bitter melon. I'm looking at a take-out menu, now, which has the Americanized side, and the much more extensive “House Special” side for Chinese diners and serious food explorers, so that may well be you.

Richard Skiller 12.20.17