They say that the foods you enjoy as a child stay with you for a lifetime. I know that to be true from my own personal experience. I still enjoy the foods prepared by my parents in my youth: Mom's foods, especially mostaccioli with sausage, and Dad's limited repertoire, which included home-fried potato chips and oil-popped and butter-laden yellow popcorn.
But one of the more exotic foods of my childhood still makes me lick my lips — almond boneless chicken, or ABC: a deep-fried, battered chicken breast cut crosswise into slices, laid on a bed of iceberg lettuce, along with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms, and then covered in a sweetish brown sauce and sprinkled with sliced almonds. The sauce would soften the crispy batter and wilt the lettuce beneath, and I still crave dishes with wilted lettuce, such as the Thai dish kra tiem prik thai.
When I moved to New York, I found that there were some comfort foods I simply couldn't get there. Nobody knew what a coney dog was, and requesting crispy hash browns brought a blank stare — or, worse still, a plate of "home fries" that were always a poor replacement for them. But the most depressing disappointment was yet to come. It happened at a Chinese takeout joint, when I ordered almond boneless chicken to go.
My first sign that something was horribly wrong was the fact that it came in a cup. It should have come in a polystyrene box, right? I opened up the cup and found a gooey soup that contained those familiar ingredients prepared in a way that confused and angered me. Instead of sweet childhood memories, this dish conjured adult tears of rage.
Why was this dish so different? It turns out that Chinese-American food can be just as regional as American food. When Chinese-Americans adapted their food to American tastes, they tweaked it differently all over the country, creating dishes specific to localities, such as Rhode Island's "Chow Mein Sandwich" and St. Louis' "St. Paul Sandwich."
So it's not without precedent. But if you look online for some of the sleuths who've tried to trace the pedigree of ABC, you'll encounter a lot of frustrated essays. Reading through them, it seems that, although we can establish that the dish we know as almond boneless chicken is popular in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, that's about all that's certain.
Luckily, it's so popular here that it is likely to remain on local menus until I'm dead and gone — although there are some notable variations. One of metro Detroit's best Chinese-American restaurants, Livonia's Szechuan Empire, offers two versions of almond chicken, "crispy" and "stir-fried." Shangri-La in Detroit skews to the classic version, perhaps even crispier than usual. That's where you'll find us getting our fix, bypassing the excellent dim sum for a taste of childhood comfort.