Finally: a revelatory dish at A&J Restaurant (Longish)
Despite A&J's numerous accolades, I've always been somewhat disappointed by their offerings. For instance, both the steamed spareribs with spiced rice powder and the Chinese sesame biscuit with sliced beef were decidedly unappealing each time I tried them. The rice powder lent the spare ribs an unsettling texture, and the sesame biscuit was stale and stuffed with dry, tired beef.
But I slowly worked my way through the menu until I discovered their "noodles with ground pork and bean paste sauce" (Zha Jiang Mian). I ordered it with their thick noodles, which are wide like Japanese udon, and so pliant and doughy that they must be homemade. I can't stop thinking about them.
The ground pork was cooked in a bean paste sauce that lent it an appealing reddish hue, and was not too sweet and only mildly spicy. And much to my surprise, the substantial mound of pork and noodles turned out to be flanked by a pile of cucumber shreds and another pile of fresh bean sprouts. The cucumber shreds may have had a touch of rice wine vinegar, but seemed otherwise untreated, as were the bean sprouts.
But heres how A&J presented the cucumber in an ingenious format for this dish: they shredded it lengthwise into long, thin, noodle-like pieces of cucumber. This enabled me to easily wrap both the noodles and the cucumber around my fork, spear a few bean sprouts with the exposed tines and coat the bound parcel in ground pork. Awesome. The combination of the two crisp, refreshing vegetables was a perfect counterpoint to the savory ground pork, and the thick noodles were the perfect starchy bond to bring all of the elements together. I'm not sure if a similar effect can be achieved with chopsticks, however.
Though most of A&Js menu features small plates, this dish is a kingly portion, practically enough for two to share, and a bargain at only $5.95. I go to the A&J in Annandale: 4316B Markham St.
I think both the sesame biscuit and the rice powder spareribs are weaker dishes OR simply catering to a taste that I will never have.
You may also enjoy:
Pickled Longbean with ground beef. This is one of my favorite dishes here. The longbean is chopped to quarter inch lengths and it's simply a good flavor combo.
Pickled cucumber: Crispy cucumbers in a hot oil. If you don't like oily dishes, this may be too oily for you.
Schezuan wontons: tiny wontons look a bit like comets in a peppery soy dip.
Pig ear: If you like schezuan peppercorns but don't like to have your mouth numbed to death by them, this is a very good dish. The ear is sliced very thin and is easy to chew.
And of course, there's a good reason their pork pan fried dumplings (8 to an order) are their best seller. Try using a bit of the vinegar on the table on them.
Wow- thank you for such a detailed response. I've had a number of other items on A&J's menu beyond the ones that I mentioned. Among the more noteworthy items are the excellent pork dumplings that you cited, as well as the oily and garlicky cucumber salad that you also mentioned.
The pickled long bean with ground beef is actually at the top of my list for items to try on my next visit, so I was happy to read your description. It's listed as a seasonal dish, so hopefully they'll have it at this time of year.
Also of note are their pan fried buns with pork or beef. When you first bite into one, you have to drink some of the juice out before proceeding to avoid a nasty scald- not unlike Bolivian saltenas. But the bread part of the bun is wonderfully flaky and a bit doughy in parts, and so it absorbs much of the savory juice overflow.
And the thousand layer pancake, which arrives looking like an oversized, swirled pastry, is an excellent accompaniment for dipping in their spicy beef soup. Also, the black plum herbal drink, mildly sweet and very smoky, is a good soother after all the garlic, chilis, and peppercorns.
the spareribs are a dish that most non-Chinese diners tend not to appreciate as much as Chinese diners do. but I think the potstickers, scallion pancakes, etc. seem to be more palatable to a broader audience. at least A&J is cheap so if you don't like a dish it's not like you can't just order something else.