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May 27, 2007 07:03 PM

Regional Chinese in Center City?

Howdy all, I'm a 'hounder from Boston, visiting Philly for a convention and staying sans car in Center City. Was curious about the state of affairs for Chinese cookery from regions of China that are not Guangdong Province. I'm US born of Chinese parents and spent a year in China where I developed a taste for some wonderful regional dishes especially from the Sichuan, Shanghai and northern areas.

I tried searching a bit on the message boards and noticed that there seems to be a general nod towards Szechuan Tasty House for Sichuan cooking and Sang Kee for Peking duck. My question though: I'm a veteran of multiple trips to QuanJuDe in Beijing and have been sharply disappointed by any and all of the Boston options that I've tried. Is Sang Kee any closer to the Real Deal?

Also, if there are other specific recs for good jiaozi (Peking ravioli), Shanghai cooking (incl XiaoLongBao or soup dumplings), Yunnan cooking or Taiwanese cooking, I'm all ears.

Thanks in advance!

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  1. I have never been to China, but I have eaten quite a bit of Chinese food in varying levels of authenticity. Szechuan Tasty House is wonderful!! The Three Pepper Chicken is the hottest thing I have ever had, addictive and mildly painful. They saute small pieces of chicken in copious amounts of chili oil with some sort of diced green chili pepper, sliced garlic, and dried red chilis. My only complaint is that the seeds are left in the green chilis, so I have to clear them out myself. Everytime I come to Philly, I want to have this meal.

    1. At the risk of getting rotten tomatoes thrown at me I have never found any Chinese in Philadelphia to rival what is available in Boston. (Dreaming of Mary Chungs) Not to say that ours is bad. It just isn't fabulous. Don't waste your time. Try one of our great Italian places.

      8 Replies
      1. re: joluvscards

        I can now report from hard earned experience that Boston has better alternatives to Mary Chung's (a standby for years, but simply too Americanized for my taste these days).

        My wife and I went prowling around Center City with a local friend today. We were aimed at Szechuan Tasty House, but sadly they were closed for Memorial Day. Looked across the street and saw a place called Chung King Garden (in Chinese, Chong2Qing4 Chuan1Cai4,, at 915 Arch Street). The place looked promising so we stopped in.

        I talked very briefly with a waitress; they've been in this place for about a year. One chef is from the Sichuanese city of Chengdu, the other from Chongqing. Promising point #1 is that the tables are equipped with a pot of chili sauce that is actually from Sichuan. This means that in addition to the chili spice, said sauce also has sichuan peppercorns as well, which means that anything that isn't quite the right flavor can be tugged in that direction with strategic application of sauce. The place btw also serves Heineken and Tsingtao, but is also OK with BYOB.

        There is a section of the menu that is baldly called "American Chinese Food;" I avoided this part of the menu. Was fairly pleased with what we did wind up ordering.

        hong2you3 chao3shou3 (D21 on the takeout menu; chili oil wontons) - dumplings characteristic to Sichuan province. They got the filling and the skin right, light delicate texture and toothsome filling, though the chili oil came up a bit short. However, supplemented with the aforementioned pot of chili sauce, these were more or less right.

        shui3zhu3 niu3rou4 (B13, "boiled beef") is beef slices with napa cabbage and celery in a fiery chili and peppercorn infused broth. I had asked three times for a fairly spicy, fairly peppercorn infused dish, and this one wasn't bad, probably more than hot enough for most, though not quite recognizable to a Sichuan or Hunan native.

        ma2po1 dou4fu3 (A12, mapo tofu) is not like your average strip mall spicy bean curd. This is the real deal, with plenty of pepper heat, plenty of sichuan peppercorns and judicious use of black bean paste. Again perhaps not quite as much heat or numbing spice as I would have liked, but very satisfying and more than enough for everyone else around the table.

        guo3ba1 san1xian1 (C24, three delights rice cake) the "guoba" or "wo bar" in Cantonese is sort of a rice crispy cake. It's served up in a sauce with your choice of meat, in this case a mix of pork, shrimp, some cuttlefish and possibly beef. It's not lethal spicy like the other dishes, and unfortunately in this case, the surrounding sauce was a bit land. Rice cakes were about right though.

        zi4ran2 yang2rou4 (A4, cumin lamb) was a little peppery, well balanced with the cumin flavor, big chunks of onion to add texture and sweetness to the party. This dish disappeared from the table; both spice heads and non-spice heads liked it (though you'll want to avoid chomping down on the chopped dried red chilis if you're not big into heat).

        qing1chao3 kong1xin1cai4 (C42, fresh water spinach) - kong-xin-cai, literally "empty-heart vegetable," is a sort of spinach green with a long hollow stalk (hence "empty heart"). It's a staple of Chinese restaurants, and it's quite unusual (even in Boston) to find this as a standard issue item on the menu. Preparation is a simple quick pan stir fry, but they somehow managed to infuse a lovely hint of garlic into the sauce despite no visible garlic mixed among the greens.

        All in all, quite a satisfying meal and for my local friend, who lived in Hunan with me for a year, the flavors brought back memories. Perhaps it isn't quite in the league of the very best Sichuanese places that I've been to in New England, but it's really quite respectably good. Don't know if you have to ask them not to hold back or not.

        If I manage to get to Szechuan Tasty House, I'll post a second report. Thank you for your indulgence. (Oh, and I'm all ears on a great Italian place too.)

        1. re: Dr.Jimbob

          "Mary Chung's ... (a standby for years, but simply too Americanized for my taste these days)"

          Totally agree and thus not surprised you liked Chung King Garden. STH is quite good as well but their menu does not have the depth of CKG. If you go definitely do the three pepper chicken (san jiao bei ji) and I think their ma po dou fu is the best in Philly. I also like the yu xiang qiezi (fish flavor eggplant). I am not sure what constitutes Fujian cuisine, but you may find a few dishes at STH - their name in Chinese you may have noticed is Fu Chuan Wei (the fu of Fujian).

          Haven't found good XLB in Philly yet (but just had XLB at Shangri-La in Belmont..mmm). There are no really good Taiwanese restaurants that I know of, certainly nothing to compare to Mulan or Taiwan Cafe in Boston. I avoid Ray's. You can find tasty Taiwanese-style zongzi (sticky rice in banana leaves, pork, peanuts, etc) at Greenland Tea House, which I've recently become addicted to thanks to joypirate's post a while back.

          1. re: Dib

            I noticed that Reading Terminal Market has a place that calls itself Shanghai Gourmet ... anybody know anything about this place?

            When you say the san jiao bei ji and yuxiang qiezi are great, are you talking about Chung King Garden or Szechuan Tasty House?

            As far as the fact that STH's Chinese name is "Fu Chuan Wei," that "Fu" is a word that means fortune or good luck, and turns up in names and places all over the place, without necessarily implying anything about a Fujian connection. In fact I noted with some amusement that the recreated Ming Dynasty house in the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a calligraphic sign on top that is simply this character "Fu" repeated five times with no other characters. At least you don't have to decide if you're reading it left to right or right to left ...

            Always glad to spread word of good chow -- I figure one of the points of a group like this is to raise people's expectations of what restaurants are capable of ... in hopes that there will be a place to rise to the challenge. Sichuan is the new hot Chinese cuisine, perhaps because of its identifiability given the unique ma-la (numb/hot) combination. But the truly great Sichuan chefs can invest the dishes with depths of flavor beyond the heat ... the guy at New Taste made a lazi jiding with big chunks of roasted garlic, and the garlic suffused its way into the flavor when you bit into it ... the effect is sort of like that scene from Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door and the scene turns from B&W into Technicolor. There' s a similar quality to the complexity of the sauce to the chaoshou at Sichuan Garden, and hints of greatness at some other places in Boston. Here' s hoping Philly rises to the challenge!

            1. re: Dr.Jimbob

              My comments about the san jiao bei ji and the yuxiang qiezi refer to STH. At CKG I prefer the jia chang qiezi (homestyle eggplant) over the yuxiang qiezi (fish-flavor eggplant) - their yuxiang is too sweet for my taste.

              It's true that this particular 'fu' means fortune, but the 'fu' in Fujian is the same 'fu'; I've been told by two native speakers (one from Beijing and one from Taiwan, if that matters) that 'fu chuan wei' means Fujian and Sichuan flavor (chuan shi si4 chuan1 de chuan; wei shi wei4 dao4 de wei).

            2. re: Dib


              Taiwanese style zong-zi is not wrapped in banana leaves, but bamboo leaves like most other types of zong-zi. There's a specific town in Taiwan called nei3 wan1 that wraps their zong-zi with ginger leaves. But they are the exception.

              Taiwanese zong zi also usually doesn't contain peanuts. The Tainan-style zong-zi contains pork and sometimes mushrooms. That's about it.

              Margaret Kuos in the suburbs has northern chinese food on its lunch/weekend menu, since their chefs are northern chinese or Taiwanese. They have decent xiao3 long2 bao1, niu2 rou4 mien4, you2 tiao2, fan4 tuan2, and other common lunch/breakfast items. Expensive though.

              1. re: scrapple

                Ha...sorry for the mistakes. I don't know that I could tell the difference between bamboo and banana leaves, and I do know that my Taiwanese aunt's zongzi contains peanuts and those little dried shrimp as well. But Greenland really does have Taiwanese-style zongzi as you describe it. It's on the right tray. The left tray has the zongzi with peanuts and shrimp, and the rice is darker. Thanks for the tip about Margaret Kuo's.

            3. re: Dr.Jimbob

              This is a great write-up, Dr. J. A pleasure to read and full of useful information. Can't wait to try all of these dishes at CKG.

              1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                So sorry to hear about Mary Chung's. It's been 15 years and I still think about it. We'll give Chung King Garden a try. We love Sichuan.
                I 2nd the rec for Lakeside dim sum.

            4. I am not the least bit knowledgable about the regions of Chinese cookery, but we do love the dim sum (not from a cart, all on the menu) at Lakeside Deli, on 9th St. just north of Race St. It's small, unassuming, everything is made to order and the food is delicious - and very inexpensive. It's only open until 8pm.

              1. This is hilarious, I tried to log in last night to tell you to go to Chung King instead, which is much better than Szechuan Tasty House, but I had technical issues and could not. I am surprised you did not think Chung King was as good as the best you have been to, because it is as good as the best in NYC, and this is the first time anyone told me Boston has Chinese food worth writing home about. My usual point of reference is the West Coast (by reputation).

                In answer to your previous question, Philadelphia is lacking in non-Cantonese restaurants. There are several Fujian-style places, the best of them is probably Rising Tide. They also serve Chiu Chow style dishes, though you said "non-Guangdong" so I am not sure if you care about that! There is a Taiwanese place on Race, its name escapes me, but though its food is good it smells and is dreary. I defer to others for Cantonese recommendations, the most enjoyable I found was Rising Tide on Race, again, but I imagine each place might have a dish that they do best. Only a few are on the level of NYC Chinatown Chinese food, sadly. There are no Shanghainese places and no restaurants specializing in Northern cuisine like Jilin or Liaoning provinces. The chef at Chung King once promised to cook Hunan style for me if I called ahead.

                So far as Italian, I know there are many good choices and I am not so knowledgeable, but my wife and I recently went to Osteria, one of the hottest tables in town and whose chef merited a front-page article in the NYTimes (Vetri). We loved it and its warm service is representative of Philadelphia's best.

                6 Replies
                1. re: brescd01

                  Thanks; unfortunately you've confirmed my fears. However, you never know, so I figured it was at least worth asking.

                  As far as better Sichuanese cooking, there are at least three places that I can think of further up the coast. The reigning champion in my book is a place called Clinton's Taste of China, which is on the Boston Post Road (Route 1) in Clinton CT. It's the kind of place I'd drive past if I was going up route 1 and hungry for Chinese food, but it turns out they're owned by a husband-and-wife couple where the husband is from Clinton, the wife is from Chengdu and somehow they convinced a Chengdu chef to go there. On their A game, they're the closest I've seen to what I remember eating in Chengdu.

                  There was a wonderful place in Boston called New Taste of Asia which was run by a 3rd generation Beijing chef with a Sichuanese wife. Unfortunately that place went out of business, and a few of us are keeping ears out to see where the guy resurfaces. The Boston area contender is called Sichuan Garden, in Brookline Village and Woburn. On a good night, they can be very very good with your basic down-home Sichuan dishes. I like one or two of the Grand Sichuan franchises that I've been to in NYC (esp the Hunan-style one at St. Mark's), but the Chinatown one at least did not come to the same level as Clinton CT, Sichuan Garden or New Taste.

                  Chung King is in the same league as a few other decent Sichuanese places in the Boston area. I've noticed that one problem is that at least one place, the chef holds back on the heat and the sichuan peppercorns for fear of alienating his (mostly suburban) clientele. I wonder if there's a similar issue afoot at Chung King, because the flavors struck me as mostly not bad, the principal problem was that they didn't go far enough. I'll be happy to go back there next time I'm in town, though as joluvscards suggests, I'm also going to try out some other places that bring out Philly's chowing strengths. (I spotted a few things about a BYO Italian place called Branzino which is right around the corner from my B&B, and a BYO French place called Pif, for starters ...)

                  1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                    Chung King Garden definitely got better - more flower pepper (ma), more heat (la), and better service - the more times I ate there with the same people.

                    1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                      Maybe they gave it to you "white guy spicy".

                      Every time I've gone there the food's always been blistering hot.

                      1. re: scrapple

                        I'm not white (I'm Chinese American), though the other three people at the table were not, so it's possible they dumbed it down for them.

                        It's also possible that I burned off enough taste buds from a year in Hunan Province that nothing short of peel-the-paint-off-the-walls hot leaves an impression any more (but the same holds true for anyone from Hunan or Sichuan provinces).

                        1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                          I lived in Boston for 25 years, Philly for 7, and I think Philly's Chinese food In fact, all Philly food) is better. Although for good Chinese, I generally cook at home. No one has mentioned Lee How Fook on 11th; I haven't been since they "redecorated," but it used to be my favorite, truly wonderful, in fact.


                          1. re: janeer

                            Any ordering recs for Lee How Fook?