Words by Stephanie Foo
I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you’ve probably never had a good egg roll.
I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you’ve probably never had a good egg roll. I’m assuming to you, an egg roll is likely not something of beauty and value, but is instead a crunchy accessory that comes automatically with a Chinese combo meal, the appetizer equivalent of a fortune cookie: fun but gastronomically useless.
For me, and for those of us who grew up in San Jose, California, this is tragic. Egg rolls shouldn’t be part of a meal’s supporting cast. They’ve got star potential. Growing up, for as long as I could remember, every single pool party, back-to-school-night, potluck, or birthday always had at least one foil tray, stacked neatly with 25 tightly-wrapped rectangles. Egg rolls were more of a necessity than pizza. And they always came from the same place: King Eggroll.
King Eggrolls’ eponymous delights are each the size of a hot dog—two are a meal unto themselves, and technically a well-balanced one. They’re filled with cabbage, glass noodles, and juicy, well-seasoned morsels of pork. These egg rolls are not a portable food—you need a plate to eat them. Wrapped in extra-crispy wonton wrappers, they noisily shatter at first bite, pieces of toasty wonton exploding everywhere, noodles dangling out like a stripped wire.
And so we ate King Eggrolls at parties, parent-teacher conferences, funerals... I passed the small Lundy Avenue shop on the way to school and waited in the winding line to pick some egg rolls up for lunch, or went in the afternoon with all the other hungry kids who wanted an after-school snack. We probably ate dozens—hundreds?—of King Eggrolls a year.
Like access to so many childhood pleasantries, I took for granted the omnipresence of perfect egg rolls; it wasn’t until college that I really noticed how exemplary it was that we had these treasures in the first place. (And they are actual treasures—egg rolls are considered lucky to eat during Lunar New Year because they look like gold bars.) I remember the moment it happened. It was maybe a couple of months into my freshman year, and I was at a house party, chugging Natty Lite and feeling hungry. I stumbled my way into the filthy kitchen and started picking through a bag of Tostito’s when it hit me: Where were the egg rolls?
I turned to the person closest to me. Had they grown up with big trays of egg rolls at their parties? They had no idea what I was talking about. They asked me how much I’d had to drink. I excused myself to Google King Eggroll, and saw that there was just one location near my home in San Jose. How could it be that King Eggrolls were not a universal, American phenomenon? When I tried to satisfy my egg roll craving at a Chinese restaurant the following week and was forced to gnaw wilted pieces of cabbage out of a chewy shell, my heart broke further. I’d never really thought about how good these egg rolls were, because they had always just... been there. As quintessential to my community as donuts or soda. As American as apple pie.
I’d never really thought about how good these egg rolls were, because they had always just... been there. As quintessential to my community as donuts or soda. As American as apple pie.
This loss was redoubled by the fact that I recognized I probably wouldn’t have another King Eggroll in my life. After high school, I had fled San Jose like a bat out of hell, and even though I only went to college about an hour away, I had vowed never to return to Berryessa. Nothing was waiting for me there. In high school, I had no friends. After my parents’ messy divorce, they’d both abandoned San Jose–and me–with their respective significant others, escaping the terrible memories of their abusive marriage. I stayed, living alone, for two years to finish high school. So on the last day of my senior year, I ripped all of the papers out of my binder, threw them into the air, and screeched out of the parking lot, blasting Yellowcard and screaming, “WAY AWAY AWAY FROM HERE I’LL BEEEEE.” I would not miss anything. I would not speak to anyone again. I would never come back.
But of course. Egg rolls, of all things, had not been a part of this calculation. By eschewing San Jose, I had now entered a phase of life bereft of egg rolls as they should be. This engulfed me in a surprisingly existential sense of panic. But that’s how it works, right? In every stage of life, in every place you live, you never know what it is you’re taking for granted until it’s gone.
I let it go, and moved on: to San Francisco, then Oakland, then New York City. The years ticked past, and slowly my resentments for San Jose faded away. Which is why when I finally had the opportunity to visit the Bay Area, some 15 years later, I thought, it’s time. I needed to return to King Eggroll. And this time, I needed to spread the gospel of King Eggroll to the whole world, to illustrate what potential it had to offer.
When I walked back through those familiar doors, everything looked the same. Elsewhere in the strip mall, the restaurants and karate studios were out of business. But at King Eggroll, there was still a line. I dutifully placed myself at the end of it, and took in those same few grimy tables, the same large, 3-D faux-bronze picture on the wall broadcasting lots of round Chinese babies running around, their mouths agape. I’d always wanted to stick my finger inside of those little mouths when I was a kid, but as an adult, I refrained, because that is creepy.
In the back was the dim sum station with large steamers, and to the right, hot trays full of Chinese food—everything from fried rice to salt and pepper spareribs covered in jalapenos and scallions. Seeing fried smelt sitting alongside sweet and sour chicken, I remembered something a white friend had told me—that King Eggroll was their gateway to Asian food. As I stood there, it seemed obvious how you’d come for the eggrolls and stay for…everything else.
As I stood there, it seemed obvious how you’d come for the eggrolls and stay for…everything else.
King Eggroll had certainly been a gateway for my family. The egg rolls and much of the other food was Chinese, but the dead giveaway that the owners were Vietnamese were the long metal tables with Styrofoam trays of cold Vietnamese staples. Pork or shrimp or black fungus spring rolls. Bánh khoai mì nướng (sweet and stringy cassava cake) and tiny flower-shaped bánh bông lan (sponge cakes) and bánh da lợn (squishy green and yellow-layered cake of steamed coconut milk and mung beans). Those cakes looked so sticky and shiny under plastic wrap, that they were even more irresistibly pokeable than the fat babies, and my mom always had to swat my fingers away. But she was intrigued—so many of these dishes looked similar to things we’d had in Malaysia, but just a little strange and new. Every time we visited, she brought back something different. Before long, my family was trying out Vietnamese restaurants. I wasn’t so crazy about phở at the time, but take-out catfish claypot became a dinner staple in our house. The bánh béo I poked back then is still one of my favorite foods.
As I placed an order for my first King Eggroll in years, someone behind me said my name. A kid I’d gone to high school with was standing there. “This is crazy,” he said, “You live in New York, don’t you? And I live in L.A.” But it was Labor Day weekend, and what’s the first thing you do when you come home? He showed me a tray of 100 egg rolls they’d bought for his niece’s birthday and we laughed.
As I sat in my rental car in the parking lot, I bit into my egg roll. And there it was—just the same. I’d forgotten how the inner layer of skin was just a tad bit chewy. How sweet the cabbage was, how much flavor the pork had, just the tiniest bit peppery. How the first bite is the best part because it’s a big crispy mouthful of gathered wonton rosette—until you realize you get one more shot with the other side. A good egg roll is like a good story arc, I thought, as I savored its satisfying conclusion. Grabs you in the beginning and satisfies you at the end.
Published on March 7, 2022
Words by Stephanie Foo
Stephanie Foo is the author of the book, "What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma," and a former producer for shows like This American Life and Snap Judgment. Her favorite way to heal from trauma is by eating a lot of food.