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Sweet-and-Sour Saga

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IN SPITE OF SEVERAL TABLES FILLED with boisterous Chinese businessmen scarfing up steaming bowls of noodles, and a cacophony of kitchen noises in the background, John and Mei Krich have no trouble concentrating on the task at hand. “Go ahead,” the bearded author says, and the beautiful, silken-haired woman rattles off a complicated order in perfect Mandarin. Minutes later, at the popular Sam Lok restaurant in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the savory dishes start arriving—Szechuan pork wonton in red sauce, spicy cucumbers, fish-and-bean-curd soup, candied beef, fried yams and shredded potatoes. Eagerly attacking the feast, Krich, 47, smiles like a contented Buddha. “Mei, this is the best ordering you’ve done here,” he says delightedly.

It is no idle compliment. In search of the world’s best Chinese restaurant, the couple have ordered no fewer than 450 meals at 350 restaurants in 23 countries over a 15-month span, a quest Krich describes wittily in his new book Won Ton Lust (Kodansha America). The veteran travel writer says the idea grew “naturally out of our lives. [I thought] maybe we could get paid for what we were doing anyway—going around the world eating in Chinese restaurants.”

As they went, they also devoured recommendations—from local Chinese, traveling salesmen and Mei’s family—to find the best eateries at each stop, whether in Sidari, on a remote Greek island, where Hong Kong cooks wearing rubber thongs whip up chow fun; at the Snake Restaurant in Guangzhou, China, which serves stir-fried snake with greens (“It molts in your mouth,” Krich notes wryly in the book); or in Gallup, N.Mex., which served authentic chop suey to an appreciative Navajo clientele. Says Martin Yan, the Chinese chef and star of the TV show Yan Can Cook: “[John] took the time and courage to write something dear to his heart.”

Krich, an only child who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, learned about recording his passions from his parents. His late father, Aron, a psychologist and publisher, edited works about sex, and his mother, Toby Cole, 81, a former theatrical agent, has written about acting. John’s interest in China was sparked by his first cousin Mike Chinoy, who majored in Chinese Studies and is now CNN’s Beijing bureau chief. “Very early on, John developed a great curiosity about the world,” says Krich’s mother, who describes his upbringing as “bookish.” Krich studied at Reed College in Oregon and New York University before dropping out after his sophomore year to write books, including One Big Bed, which chronicled what he calls his ’60s radical lifestyle, and to live on an Oakland commune.

For the next seven years he wrote nonfiction about a variety of subjects—including paeans to Brazilian music and Latin American baseball, two of his other passions—and novels, one of which won the prestigious Hemingway Award from PEN, the international literary society. With his career on track, all that was missing was someone with whom to share his success. That problem evaporated when he met Mei, now 40, outside a Berkeley, Calif., movie theater in 1993. “She’s a Renaissance woman,” Krich says of his wife, a food critic, computer designer, author and producer for a Singapore opera company who grew up in Beijing and earned an aeronautical engineering degree there before coming to the U.S. in 1984.

Though the couple sample many different cuisines in their one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Twin Peaks section, Krich’s fascination with China and its endlessly varied cooking has only grown since he married Mei in June 1995. “I wouldn’t have done the book if I hadn’t met her,” he says. While their global pilgrimage, which began in the fall of 1994 and lasted until December 1995, was not without stress (a hotel fire in Fiji, his father’s death in July 1995), it was filled with serendipitous discoveries, such as Chinese Still Life, a four-star Szechuan restaurant they came upon in Prague. And the best of the best? Krich squirms. “It was like trying to find the Holy Grail,” he says. “It’s hard to compare a banquet place to a hole in the wall.” The couple did compile a Top 40 list and a dream menu featuring dishes from some of the anointed restaurants, including squid in cold bean-curd sauce prepared by Lai Sin’s in Drei Bergen in Holland, Temple Goose from Shanghai’s Jing An Temple and kung pao frog legs, served at Shun Lee Palace in New York City. And the most clueless? “The worst food was in a town called Bendigo in the Australian outback,” says Krich with a laugh. “Mei asked the waitress, ‘Can’t you just stir-fry something—some vegetables with garlic?’ The woman said, ‘I know what you mean, dearie, but we just don’t do it like that.’ ”