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Sichuan Chowdown Report: Chili Garden in Milpitas

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Last February in a post about Darda, “daveena” included a mention of neighboring Chili Garden and some of the interesting items on its menu. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/488279

Today seven chowhounds (and one guest) rallied for lunch to check it out. We discovered that Chili Garden has a new Chinese name (while the English has stayed the same), as shown in the photo below. The ostrich, deer and Roberto have left the house.
Chili Garden’s grand opening banner
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3294/2...

That said, the current menu still offers many Sichuan specialties. “tanspace” did a yeoman’s job helping us communicate with our server. Here’s the list of what we ordered, please jump in with your comments.

Cold Dishes:
C2. Spicy pork ear, $6.95
C4. Cucumber in vinegar sauce, $4.95
C6. Chicken in hot sour and fruit flavor, $5.95
C8. Couple beef (fu qi fei pian), $6.95

E19.Twice cooked fish fillet, $9.95
F1. Roast lamb leg with cumin, $13.95
F9. Beef in fiery sauce (“water-boiled beef”), $9.95
G5. Chong Qing spicy chicken, $8.95
K2. Stir singua, $7.95
L7. Ground pork noodle (dan dan mien), $6.25
LS20. Spicy pork intestines (lunch special size), $6.25
R6. Sesame bread, $5.65
R7. Green onion pan cake, $2.25

My favorite dish was the spicy pork ear, which our waitress had recommended. Pressed into a terrine-like block and then shaved into slices, like the version at Oliveto’s Whole Hog dinner, the crunchy slices of pig ear bound with gelatin were so thin you could see through them. Interleaved with thin slices of cucumber and then doused with Sichuan peppercorn sauce, the fanned presentation was absolutely gorgeous. The taste and texture was even better.

Here’s the “after” shot of our lunch table,
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3162/2...
By the time the dan dan mien came out, I could barely muster for a small taste.

We had also wanted to order the steamed lamb dumplings, but these were sold out. A rather insipid soup of the day and steamed rice were included with our meal. With tax and more than 20% tip, our bill came to only $16 per person.

A white board offers additional dishes, but I forgot to ask about these.
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3201/2...

We passed the hat and raised more than $75 for the Sichuan earthquake relief fund. Thanks for helping the people and culture that brought us this delicious cuisine.

* * * * Sichuan Chowdown Series * * * *

Chili Garden, Milpitas (July 2008)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/539216

Little Sichuan, San Mateo (July 2008)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/536733

Great Szechuan, Richmond (June 2008)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/531718

Hunan Restaurant, Fresno (Chef Liu rediscovered, May 2008)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/524699

China Village, Albany (November 2007)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/457185

South Legend, Milpitas (July 2007)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/423466

Zone 88, San Francisco (December 2006)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/355697

Little Sichuan Express, Fremont (September 2005)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/39806

FeldmanFest @ China Village, Albany (Chef Liu’s last night, September 2004)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/31294

Spices! II, San Francisco (January 2004)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/27262

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Lu Lai Garden
210 Barber Ct, Milpitas, CA 95035

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  1. the restaurant is in an amazing mall where 237 meets 880 in milpitas. it's an all-asian
    festival (with a 99 ranch, and at least a dozen restaurants, including a branch of penang,
    a seafood specialist, a dimsum place, and generally mobbed at lunchtime.

    a few comments on the dishes:

    - cucumber in "vinegar sauce" was pickled cuke. duh. the traditional szechuan pickle.
    - i was surprised at "twice cooked fish", as i think of fish as a fragile dish and unforgiving of being even slightly overcooked. it was deep fried and then sauted with spices (and not overcooked!)
    - singua is the edible loofah. i find it tastes muddy and uninteresting. it's the catfish of vegetables.
    - intestine is always an interesting benchmark. we were hoping for something crispy, but it didn't make it that far. i thought it had a slightly offputting pissy taste (typical of
    andouillette). somehow the italians manage to avoid this problem with tripe.
    - the roast lamb leg was two big lamb shanks, which could have been at home in some
    sort of fusion moroccan restaurant. perfectly cooked, crunchy on the outside but not dried out.
    - the insipid soup was just a typical egg drop. (hot and sour would have been more interesting).

    1 Reply
    1. re: markseiden

      Thanks for joining us and posting. I like the cold cucumbers a lot, quite a pretty dish too mingled with slices of sweet red pepper. I don't think of it as "pickled" as the red pepper and cucumber were still fresh and just tossed with the vinegar saucing. Pao cai, the traditional sichuan pickle usually has a lot of cabbage in it and has spent more time in the brine.

      The singua was one of my favorites. The kitchen used small and tender loofah (aka Chinese okra) and handled them so well. They reached the full sweetness but didn't turn to mush.

      I had twice cooked fish for the first time at our November chowdown at China Village and wanted to try another version. This was a good one, sauteed with plenty of fresh leeks and bits of black bean with other savories, but not quite up to CV's standard.

      The opinion of the roast lamb shank seems to depend on whether one had a taste from the softer one or the undercooked piece. I can't recall ever being served a hunk of roasted meat like this at a Chinese restaurant before. The brunoise of aromatic veggies baked with the meat has a lot of exotic flavor, but this didn't penetrate the meat. I found a couple whole cumin pods in the mix. This seemed like something from the western end of the Silk Road.

    2. I enjoyed the Chowdown but wished overall that the dishes were spicier. Normally at Sichuan restaurants I eat tons of rice to withstand the chili assault, but at Chili Garden the dishes were surprisingly mild -- though several dishes had good "ma" (numbing) flavor, few had much "la" (spicy).

      My favorite dish of the night was Chicken in Hot Sour and Fruit Flavor (strange name). I love lemon and it was intruiging to see it as such a strong but not unpleasantly so accent to cold chicken.

      Most of the other dishes were all enjoyable, especially the Couple Beef, Spicy Intestine, and Chong Qing Spicy Chicken (though the Chicken was significantly more sweet than spicy, but enjoyable if one didn't think about it as CQ CHicken). The least favorite items were the Roasted Lamb Leg (rather tough) and the Beef in Fiery Sauce (tasteless, no fire to the fiery sauce).

      The meal was a great bargain, and thanks to Melanie & Chew Toy for organizing it!

      I posted more extensive reviews and photos on my blog:

      http://pekoepeony.blogspot.com/2008/0...

      1 Reply
      1. re: PekoePeony

        P2, thanks for being our official photographer, and so good to meet you after these many years of being on this board together.

        I quite liked the weirdly named cold chicken dish as well. I had thought we'd ordered the other chicken with homestyle sauce, but I'm glad we got to try this one. I had something similar at Hunan Restaurant in Fresno, also a first for me. It was interesting to taste the Sichuan peppercorns without chilis to get that unadulterated endorphin rush. The slices of fresh lemon highlighted the naturally citrus side of the peppercorns.

      2. Overall this was a consistently good, but not great, meal. First off, there wasn't enough heat. I'm fairly certain they didn't dumb it down for us so perhaps they just don't go full throttle with the chili peppers. I didn't sweat at all - bummer.

        I loved the pigs ear for its perfect texture and the couple beef was interesting and one of the more spicy concoctions.

        The leg of lamb with cumin was disappointing only because my piece of lamb was tough - needed another hour or so of low heat. The vetegable/cumin mixture was easily the most flavorful thing I tried all day, with loads of peppercorns. I bit into a few with the predictable tongue-numbing effect.

        The water-boiled beef was standard - the texture seemed right but it wasn't hot enough.

        The green onion pancake was of the thick variety where my style runs to the thin. It was doughy inside and got gloopy sopping up the sauces.

        Fun dining with the hounds as always but I doubt this place would merit a drive over from the Peninsula.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ChewChew

          The modest heat level here was really puzzling. The couple beef, CQ chicken, and water-boiled beef should all be prepared flaming ma-la hot traditionally and were far from it. The dishes were so well executed and presented for service . . . there's obviously a real chef in the kitchen . . . that the low heat level must be by design. I also thought that the dried chilis used were not that potent. I chewed on one and didn't get that much flavor or heat out of it. Maybe the kitchen hasn't recalibrated to the latest delivery.

          I've had a spate of bad green onion pancakes recently, that I'm now sort of adverse to ordering them.

          As you say, the cooking was consistently good. I'll be back for more, but would make sure to push on the heat level.

        2. I'd love to see this tour visit Classic Sichuan in Millbrae.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Deeg67

            Classic is on the list of targets.

            Before this lunch, I had an appointment with my Chinese doctor. I showed him the menu to ask him to what the Chinese was for what was translated as "roberto". He skimmed the menu and thought it looked very authentic, but then said, "no spicy food for you". So, Sichuan will be on hiatus until the change of seasons.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              So? What *is* "Roberto"? The suspense is killing me!

              1. re: daveena

                This is so anticlimatic.

                "Roberto" is bai luo bo aka daikon.

          2. It was nice having the company of fellow hounds and trying many different dishes. Thinking back, it now seems that the place may have had yet another change in ownership or the kitchen staff.

            I thought the cold dishes were all done very nicely. Each had its own distinct character and flavors. The chicken was quite a new taste for me. The pork ears were also done nicely and not overly chewy.

            The Chong Qing spicy chicken was juicy and tender and more meaty than some other versions which are drier and very bony. However, I noticed that the dish had much more oil than the last time.

            The water-boiled beef lacked the Ma-ness which I encountered in my previous visit. The beef though was not over tenderized and retained a little bit of texture. The overall flavor lacked the extra dimension that the peppercorn numb-ness would of provided. This dish was also unlike the water-boiled fish that I had previously.

            As others have noted, the cumin lamb roast was decent if the piece was tender. I would stick with the lamb chop or regular lamb meat next time. The cumin flavoring is also not as pronounced as those of China Village.

            The twice-cooked fish filet was not as good as I had hoped. The flavoriing was light spicy. The preparation reminded me of salt-and-pepper fish filet but done with red pepers instead.

            Overall, the flavoring are spicy but not overly so. Possibly it is to appeal to the mostly high-tech worker lunch crowd nearby so they don't have to deal with emergency restroom runs.

            It is possible that there has been some kitchen or ownership changes even since April. Both the Chong Qing Chicken and Water-Boiled dishes look and tasted different. The flavors are all toned down from before. Even the Chinese name and the take-out menu seems different. Perhaps someone knows the inside scoop.

            1 Reply
            1. re: tanspace

              Thanks again for your help, Ed!

              I agree with you about the cold dishes. That's where the kitchen's finesse really shines through.