Report: Chowhounds gather for Szechuan at China Village, East Bay
- Bryan Loofbourrow Jul 6, 2003 10:13 PM
Saturday night, July 5, was the second Chowhound-inspired get-together at China Village, a Szechuan restaurant on Solano, just to the Albany side of the Albany-Berkeley border. I expected it to be good, but I didn't expect it to be this good.
It was a Szechuan meal that turned me into a foodie. I was going to school in Boston, and a fraternity brother insisted that I had to go with him to a particular restaurant. Now, Boston wasn't, and isn't, exactly slopping over with authentic Chinese restaurants. But, for a brief period in 1979-1980, there was a truly excellent Szechuan restaurant on Mass Ave in Central Square. It was called Wu Fu. What I remember vividly was a dish of Kung Pao chicken, a dish which has become a favorite for making at home, but which I've never had done well at a restaurant. Except Wu Fu. It was a simple dish of chicken pieces, scallions, blackened dried peppers, and peanuts, nothing else, the whole dish glossy with oil. The flavor combination -- burned peppers, sweetness, oiliness, scallion was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. Sure, it was hot, and got even hotter when I ignorantly popped a pepper into my mouth, saying "what's this, a bean?" Those were my last words for 10 minutes. I drank water, and my "friend" chortled. Still, the experience awoke something. It was my attempts to re-create this dish in the fraternity basement kitchen that started me on a path to cooking and eating well.
Eventually I got to experience many different Chinese cuisines, and I'd have to admit that Cantonese has taken over as my favorite, and as my nominee for world's best cuisine when it's properly done. But Szechuan was my first love, and it still makes me happy in a way that nothing else can quite do. Which is a bit sad, because I didn't have a meal as good as the ones I had at Wu Fu, until I finally made it to Hong Kong. For 17 years, I lived in Seattle, a town without one good Szechuan restaurant. When I moved to the Bay Area, my hopes were a bit dim. People didn't get excited about the Szechuan prospects here. Oh, they'd say "Little Sichuan is pretty good," and it is. But really exciting Szechuan food didn't seem to be in the cards.
Enter China Village. Last night's feast, which we ordered a la carte, was a dazzling lineup of dishes, which left us all shaking our heads and saying "Wow. That was REALLY good."
I've got a marked-up menu here, courtesy of the ordering crew, so I have the names (and numbers) of the dishes as they appear on the menu. The REAL menu, that is. China village has two -- the Westerner's menu, and the smaller Chinese menu, which is, three cheers, in English. The take-out menu, curiously, is the Chinese menu. Here's what we ate:
If you'd taken a picture of our appetizers, you would have thought: boring! They kind of looked the same. There were 4 dishes, and each looked like a main ingredient and a red-brown sauce, with slight variations in color. In fact, each dish was very different, showing tanginess, or chiliness, or meatiness, or numbingness, or a touch of bitter, or rich bean qualities in wonderfully different ways that complemented the food to an impressive degree. I would have loved to describe all the ways that those flavors played out in each dish, but it was all I could do to get the names down and jot a few notes.
9. Spicy Combination
Yeah, I know, a lot of the menu entries are like this, you don't know what you're going to get unless you read Chinese. This one was thin slices of beef and tripe in an earthy, spicy sauce, no simple oil sauce here, rich and full of flavor, somehow you could taste the intense sauce and the very flavorful beef and the subtle tripe all at once, and it worked fabulously well. One of my favorites. EXCELLENT PLUS
10. Sliced Side pork with spicy garlic sauce
Pork fat, anyone? Thin-sliced belly pork and a rich chili sauce. A luxurious mouthful, well-complemented by the sauce. VERY GOOD
15. Szechwan Home-Style Chicken
a.k.a. "Bon-Bon Chicken.", but a much earthier, more down-home version than the silky sweet sesame sauced plate that appears in many restaurants. Didn't rate it in my notes, but liked it a lot.
18. Cucumber with garlic sauce
Crisp, dense long quarter-cylinders of firm cucumber, 1/3" thick, covered in a nicely spiced sauce with some midpalate heft to it. VERY GOOD PLUS
With the entrees, we had what I assume is:
106. Sesame Flat Bread
This is a thick version of scallion cakes, but with sesame seeds. In other words, a nice thick fried bread, crisp outside, soft inside, cut into wedges. It was tasty on its own, but much better sopped with sauce from one dish or another. Really nice, and very addictive. EXCELLENT MINUS
I don't think this was on the menu, but they had one, and recommended it, so we ordered it. Pancakes wrapped around meat and skin and scallion, good meat flavor, but a bit bland and dull, and I couldn't really taste the skin that's supposed to be the highlight of this dish. Not something I'd order here again. FAIR
37. Szechwan Style Spicy Boiled Beef
Now here's a reasonable dish description. I've heard stories of people ordering what is described as "Boiled Beef" on some Szechuan menus, thinking it a safe choice for timid palates, not realizing that it's one of the hottest things in the Szechuan repertoire. This was a thoroughly delicious pot of little bits and slices of very soft beef, cabbage, and lots of chili/numbing character. Full in flavor and delightfully delicious. Spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. One of my favorites. EXCELLENT PLUS
89. Dry Sauteed Slender Bamboo shoots
This was thin, long, young bamboo shoots, wrinkled from the cooking technique, offering a moderate resistance to the tooth, tasting of sesame and meatiness, very appealing. VERY GOOD PLUS
27. Fire Busted Pork Loins
39. Dry Cooked Tripe
Let's play match-the-dish. I've got a kidney dish and a pork intestines dish, and the two menu descriptions above. Well, people sometimes call intestines "tripe", and they sure seemed dry-cooked, so let's figure ol' No 39 is the intestines dish.
It's an important point. The intestines dish was perhaps my favorite dish of the night. Dark brown, almost black 1" long, 3/4" thick cylinders with a crisp outside and a surprisingly firm but creamy inside, and a superb savory flavor that got inside my head in the way that truffles do. EXCELLENT PLUS
The kidneys were very popular, and oohed and aahed over a great deal. I liked it, but not enough to ooh. Kidneys, crosshatch-cut, stir-fried with garlic and what I felt was too much cornstarch. For me, the cornstarch and the sweetness obscured the distinctive flavor and firm texture of kidneys, which I love. If I didn't love kidneys so much, I probably wouldn't be so picky on this point. Call it VERY GOOD.
31. Hot and Spicy Pork Feet.
On my marked-up menu, "Feet" is crossed off, and a word substituted, that I think is "shoulder." I'm not sure how this variation was negotiated, and someone called it "Szechuan braised pork shoulder." The dish was a soft, savory fall-apart stew of pork and connective tissue, flavored with 5-spice but not a 5-spice monolith, rich and full in the mouth, lots of umami. EXCELLENT MINUS
35 West Style Spicy Fish
Interesting dish, that was new to me. Soft pieces of fish and thickish transparent noodles (bean thread?) in a savory broth that looked as though it had white miso in it, though of course that's a Japanese thing, so I don't know what was really in there. Covering the white broth were several dozen roasted dried hot peppers, and we were advised to let the dish sit, to the pepper flavor had a chance to spread through the broth. I let it sit too long, I think, my palate was heavy with bean sauces and chili by the time I got to my bowl, and I wasn't expecting such a subtle, nuanced dish. So some of the subtleties were lost on me, at least to judge by the enthusiastic endorsement it got from others. Nice dish, but I missed the full experience. Not particularly spicy, despite all those peppers. VERY GOOD PLUS (but probably better than that, I want to try it again)
At about this point, there was a dish of green vegetables, but it was pretty forgettable, and I don't see it marked on my menu, so the heck with it.
70. Spicy To-Fu with Fish Fillet
Wow. Slightly tangy, thin, red broth with a good spicy kick and medium-soft textures of pieces of fish and tofu. I was nearly full by this point, but eagerly downed this wonderful dish, and even managed an extra bowl of the exquisite, subtle broth. EXCELLENT PLUS
80. Spicy Sauce Potato Strips
Whoa. Totally misleading menu description, but what else is new. What this was, was a simple-looking dish of what looked like long unbending noodles, but cut from a potato (using a mandoline), and thin wedges of fresh Jalapeno. No apparent sauce. The combination of the undercooked-potato flavor and the fresh green Jalapeno flavor was a simple and beautiful thing. Very refreshing to the spirit, and a worthy end to a very fine meal. EXCELLENT PLUS
This was really an excellent meal. So many distinctively different, wonderful sauces. Well-planned ordering meant that we always had something a little refreshing, a little different coming out. The flavors reflected excellent chef sensibilities, as though the whole trajectory of spice along your palate had been plotted out like a rocket launch. There was always enough spice, enough hotness and/or numbness to let you know that this was absolutely Szechuan food, no holds barred, but never too much. My palate was always dancing with spice, and never blasted by it.
Great place. Check it out.
1335 Solano Ave
Albany, CA 94706
Glad you enjoyed it, Bryan!
Just a correction: this was the third Chowhound dinner there, plus there have been many reports of individual visits.
Melanie's birthday banquet:
And our first visit, where we had several of the dishes from this visit:
re: Ruth Lafler
It is correct that there have been two prior Chowdowns at China Village.
Some have asked me how I come up with the running tally that I mark some of the reports with. I thought this would be a good time to clarify what constitutes a "chowdown". What I'm counting are the meals and eating events which are open to all comers. Invitations are posted on this board for any and all to sign up and a follow-up report is required. Sometimes a donation to Chowhound is requested, and sometimes not.
The dinner last night at China Village may have been attended by individual chowhounds, but it was a private affair. Since the invitation was not posted here, it was not a "chowdown" for the annual count.
That said, we want to hear eating reports of all kinds from group dinners, chowdowns, and individual excursions. So, please keep contributing all your good tips from every venue.
I'm glad your second foray to this kitchen's magic was so satisfying, Bryan.
To answer your question, you scored on "match the dish", successfully pairing what you ate with its slot on the menu. Studying your list, it looks to me like your group tried three dishes that haven't been reported on yet: 89, 27, and 31. I've been interested in 89, the bamboo shoots for a while,just hadn't gotten around to ordering it. Is it made with the green-colored young bamboo (sorta look like asparagus)?
Did you like the taste of tianmian jiang with the Peking duck? I liked that it is less sweet than hoisin. But the server who wrapped our portions the time I tried it did a poor job in getting the right balance of garnishes and condiments and I'd do it myself next time.
I'm surprised that you ordered two fish dishes cooked in broth. Maybe there's a story behind that?
The potato strips are cooked with slivers of green bell pepper, not jalapeño, unless a change was made for you. The light bit of heat comes from roasting dried peppers in the oil used to saute the dish. I like to have this dish with the spicy boiled beef to alternate bites of each for contrast.
As there are two menus at China Village, there are also two take-out menus. The one printed on yellow paper has the Chinese dishes.
Is there still a banner outside promoting 10% off on take-out dishes? This was in effect for the month of June to celebrate the restaurant's first anniversary. I was wondering if it's been extended.
re: Melanie Wong
The bamboo shoots looked mostly white to me, but yes, their shape did remind me of asparagus.
The Peking Duck...this is a dish that I never felt I understood until I went to Hong Kong, where the ducks have a richness that, it seems to me, is required to make the dish make complete sense. In this country, lacking those ducks, the only way to make the dish work is to really play up the skin, which China Village's version did not do. Failing that, the sweetness of hoisin can in a sense substitute for the richness that's supposed to be there. So, long way around the barn, my answer to your question about the less-sweet sauce is that it could have worked if the skin were more flavorful, but as things were, the lack of 'sugar as cloak' just played up for me the flatness of the rest of the dish.
I don't know why there were two fish dishes cooked in broth, but you can take one of them away when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. They were very different, very wonderful, and I think having two subtle broth dishes with lots of liquid was essential to my general impression of feeling more refreshed and cleansed than is usual when eating Szechuan food.
As far as the potato strips were concerned, someone said "jalapeño;" I took a bite of potato, and believed it. Am I that suggestible? Maybe. Maybe the hotness plus the fresh-greenness added up to a good-enough jalapeño substitute to fool me. But it did taste like jalapeño, darn it. What I will say is that if ours was made with jalapeño, then I definitely suggest requesting it that way.
re: Melanie Wong
I ended up getting both fish soups because one of them was suggested by the owner (the one mung bean thread version) and the other by you (the tofu version). I figured it would be a while before I have them again. :)
Ordering was kinda fun -- 3 seconds after I opened the menu, the manager came by and we got started. He would mention something, I'd say "yes" and the process repeated itself. Paused twice to sneak in your recs into the order.
The 10% discount banner was still there IIRC.
I've been there once, about a month ago for lunch. My partner, who's not a culinary adventurer, ordered something predictable from the lunch menu. I ordered beef stew in a bowl of soupy home-made noodles. (You don't see beef stew much, and I love it.) The server (owner?) warned me it would be spicy, but I told him I could handle it.
Boy was it hot! It had about half an inch of red chile oil floating on top. Good though. It was a huge bowlful, and I couldn't finish all the noodles, and all for about $5.00.
I would order this again, but only if I could share it with someone, as it's too one-sided for a one-person lunch order.
I had gone to the previous chowdown as well as this one. I thought that the cucumbers were better before, and the texture of the fire-bursted intestines were also better before - drier, crunchier.
The west style spicy fish was my favorite this time, And yes, it was bean thread noodle. The pork loin was also high up there.
The bamboo shoots were good but not spectacular. I like them with more flavor. The green veggie we had was on choy. It was standard.
Didn't like peking duck at all. I thought the wrappers were flour-y, the duck skin (which I later tried separately) was flavorless. Everything was just bland.
Despite the duck, it was an overall excellent meal.
This is on the menu, but I have not had it yet. Maybe someone else has.
I loved the version at Little Sichuan, which is my brother's nomination for second best fish soup. (g) We'd also tried this dish at House of Yu Rong, and it wasn't as good as Little Sichuan's version last tried about 2 years ago.
Coincidentally, Monday night I was talking to someone else who had joined you here about my hope that there would be enough interest to put together a $50/person dinner and move up the price point to give the chef more freedom. I'm especially interested in exploring his specialty in Tanjia Cai. Mr. Yao also pointed out that when his chef competed in the Bocuse d'Or, he also prepared classical French dishes. (g)
Coincidentally, I was at China Village Sunday night with my friend who had arrived that day from Sichuan. This was her first trip to the US, and when I faxed her the menu several months ago, before our last chowdown, she was excited to see so many familiar dishes. She did not feel the same about the meal we had, though, and I would have to concur that it was disappointing in several ways.
I enjoyed the last chowdown at China Village but felt that the food was not that similar to what I'd enjoyed visiting my friends in Sichuan and traveling with her and her family.
I did tell the manager I had been there for a previous chowhound dinner, and he pointed out which selections the group had had the night before.
The best of the courses was definitely the cold combination meat and tripe with five spice marinade. The sesame bread was enjoyable. The green onion pancakes were poor--we didn't eat any. A side of square-cut yam noodles in chilis was forgettable.
We enjoyed the pot of fish and tofu in the chili sauce, but I can't say it had any of the depth of flavor Melanie described. (My friend described the silken tofu as "old.") I'm not sure if I liked this dish better the last time--I just remember how full we were when it arrived and the visual effect of all those chilis. We also had a tasty steamed baby bok choy.
3 entrees and 4 sides for four people, with lots to take home. This came to $76 including tip, a fortune to my friend. She was horrified that the kitchen charged $1.95 for a small plate of pickles (cabbage). They were addictive though.
Our friends who joined us live nearby and have had similar hit and miss luck with the dishes they've ordered. I don't know if the kitchen takes more care with a banquet table. I had hoped that bringing someone from Sichuan would be novel enough to garner a little more attention from the staff, but this was not the case.