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Chowdown: Mao Family Cooking, San Mateo

A group of seven hounds were lucky enough to enjoy a chowdown organized by the gracious Victoria Liang at The Noodle Shop/Mao Family Cooking in San Mateo this evening. Despite miserable traffic, we were able to get together and try a variety of dishes favored by the late Chairman.

For appetizers, we ordered crushed garlic cucumber (to counteract the heat of some of the other dishes), husband & wife, five spice beef shank, Szechwan-style cold jelly, and sliced seaweed. The husband & wife and the five spice beef do not appear on the menu but are posted on the wall along with many other specials. Unfortunately, while most items on the wall comes with translations, the husband & wife and five spice beef do not. If you want them, you'll either need a Chinese speaker or a waiter who understands English. Since all of the ordering and conversation with the waiter was done in Mandarin, I don't know if ours actually spoke English. The crowd in the place was decidedly Chinese for the most part. Lambert explained that husband & wife was tendon and shank, so named because they are connected to each other. The sliced seaweed was on the house and came along with the other cold appetizers.

Among the many courses we ordered were the Hunan spicy chili pepper fish head (ordered early because of the amount of time it takes to prepare), fish with leek dumplings (strong of chives and light on the fish), braised bacon cut pork with mantou [steamed buns] (Chairman Mao's favorite dish, which is described on the cover of the menu), Mao's duck casserole (really more like a soup than an American casserole, although it was served in a claypot), tongxin cai (hmm, tube vegetable?), dry chili fried chicken wings (with Sichuan peppercorns), and numbing spicy pork kidneys (the menu says numbling(!), but it wasn't). That was quite a few dishes for our merry band, but we acquitted ourselves admirably and had few leftovers.

My favorites were the braised bacon cut pork (naturallyl) which was utterly succulent and flavorful and the kidney which was just amazing. So many times, I've had the braised pork and the meat is overcooked, super sweet, super salty, or some other "superlative". This one was just right, particularly when a piece was placed in a split mantou and consumed almost like a sandwich. The kidney didn't have that strong kidney taste that I associate with many preparations and while it was served with a lot of sliced jalapenos, it wasn't overly spicy for those who might not appreciate that sort of thing. In fact, the restaurant is quite accommodating for customers who prefer to vary the spice level. The kidney meat was tender as can be.

All told, with tax and tip, we each ended up spending $20. For the generous portions and delightful food with a group of like-minded hounds, how can you go wrong at that price?

And since Romolo's on 37th Avenue got a jump on Halloween, I brought over some of their seasonal witches' finger cookies (think finger-shaped cookie with a red-dyed almond fingernail). Turns out I didn't really need to bring dessert as the restaurant also gave us a warm cloud ear soup and sliced honeydew and orange.

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  1. WOW, Peter you are great getting this post on the board.

    Just a few points of information.

    The free dish was sea kelp which a cousin of seaweed but a little thicker and has more body.

    The Husband and wife was shank and tripe, was only guessing when we order a lot of time it is tendon and shank but not time.

    I will sleep on this meal before making on this wonderful meal.

    Thanks to Victoria for taking up the torch for doing a Chowdown. It was also great to meet new hounds and old hounds.

    The dishes were very large and there was a lot of food. We left a tip over 20% since the total before tip was 107. Again another place where a Chinese reader and speaker helped.

    1. This is what makes Chowdowns special--the opportunity to try an abundance of diverse dishes with the careful guidance of people who know what they are ordering. And great company to enjoy it all!

      My favorite (hard to choose, there are several runners-up) was the spicy fish head and its accompanying sauce. I took the lead of others and spooned the gravy on top of my rice. The fish alternated tender and gelatinous bits and had the perfect balance of salty and sweet (but not spicy). Definitely worth ordering as soon as you sit down because of the prep time. Melanie took home the leftover bits and she will have to tell us if she finally ate the fish eye. (Only one eye because this was only half a head, sliced lengthwise, but it was a big head and plenty for us.)

      Thank you Victoria for organizing and translating. Thank you Peter for that long and accurate listing of our many dishes... and thank you for bringing the "ladyfingers". Thank you Lambert for offering to analyze the complex sauce for the Chairman's favorite pork dish and for pointing out that serving it with bread rather than rice makes it country fare because in the context bread would have been cheaper than rice.

      1. My favorite dish was Mao's favorite too. The meat was cooked perfectly. Not too sweet, tender and not too anything. Just comfort food. After thinking on the clue of red bean in cooking this dish I looked in my kitchen looking over what Chinese cooking ingredients I remember that the bean paste (which may be made from red beans) which is a savory cooking sauce which may be the starting base of this dish. Now I will have to do a little more thinking on which "sugar" that is used for this dish. But I think the not overcooking is what is needed here.

        The Chicken Wings were the other standout with just enough heat and the right crunch in the batter.

        The Fish head was something was great in presentation and very good in in eating. A huge fish that is imported from China frozen. Clean taste for a fresh water fish.
        I was disappointed in the pork kidney's in that in my opinion it was over cooked. The duck soup was a little bland to me. I had hope for more depth in the dish.

        The vegetable dish give a cooling effect to off set some of the heat of the other dishes.

        Thanks to Victoria for hosting and I hope that this restarts our chowdowns.

        1. Pictures
          Cold Appetizers: Marinated kelp (seaweed), Szechwan-style cold jelly, Husband and Wife, Five Spice Beef Shank

          Noodle Shop
          164 W 25th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94403

          1. Pictures
            More Dishes: Cold cucumber with garlic, fish and chive dumpling, Mao's red cooked pork belly (braised bacon cut pork), stir-fried kong hsing tsai (or kong xin cai)

            Noodle Shop
            164 W 25th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94403

            1. More dishes: dry chili fried chicken wings (with Sichuan peppercorns), duck casserole soup, Hunan spicy chili pepper fish head, and numbing pork kidney

              Noodle Shop
              164 W 25th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94403

              1. Thanks for everyone for coming and being such great chowing companions. Thanks to yimster and Peter for the dessert treats.

                There are a few things I want to point out lest the posts scare off non-Chinese readers and speakers from this place. Every dish except for two of the cold apps were on the big English/Chinese menu. It's really not one of those places where all the "good" stuff is written in Chinese on the walls. As for English speaking proficiency, when I've been here by myself, they presumed I didn't speak Chinese and the English interchange here was fine. They also do give a lot of guidance on what their specialties are. You just have to let them know if you're okay with spicy and a bit adventurous. Plus, they have a screen with pics of their best dishes. Just point and say you want "that!"

                My favourite dishes were the Mao's pork belly, the fish head, and the duck soup. The pork belly is head and shoulders above the sickly sweet brown sauce versions we've been having at Chowdons at Shanghainese restaurants around the Bay Area the last several years. I know, there is an inherent stylistic/flavour profile difference, but this version just feels more nuanced and complex even though it's supposed to be pure peasant (albeit peasant on a holiday) fare. Stuffing a hunk of this meat into a steaming mini-mantou and each bite was pure bliss. The richness of the fat against the light, Q-ness of the bun. The fish head was very delicate fare... the silken cheek meat contrasted with some collagen. I also liked the duck broth in contrast to the other dishes as it was mellow with entirely different kind of spice (white pepper) that kicked in a couple of seconds after you take a sip. But really, there were no real misses in this meal. Every dish could have easily been the star dish at a restaurant with lesser technical skill. Lots of the dishes we ordered were pretty spicy, but none were in the "spice for spice sake" vein. Meaning, there was complexity and layering of taste - not just dump a bunch of chilis in to burn out your taste receptors type cooking.

                Noodle Shop
                164 W 25th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94403

                1. It was a real treat to attend my first chowdown, enjoy some great food, and meet some of the hounds whose posts have enhanced my experience of food.

                  As a chowdown virgin with limited knowledge of Hunan cuisine I had expected to be challenged by some of the dishes— perhaps not like my first encounter with stinky tofu but at least a dish or two that took some getting used to, or more chili than I could easily handle. As it happened every dish pleased me at first bite though I was merely neutral on the sea kelp. The food was spicy but not extremely so.

                  The portion sizes were very generous. Some of the appetizers were the size of regular dishes at other restaurants. The appetizers I liked most were the Husband and Wife (the crunchy tripe contrasted nicely with the savory shank) and the beef shank.

                  The Noodle Shop is not trying to be trendy or offer all the Hunan standards— I didn’t see orange peel beef on the menu, for instance. There is no pretense of sophistication here, just very good hearty cooking. They stick to what they know and do it very well.

                  My favorite dish by far was no. 49, Braised Bacon Cut Pork. I defer to my fellow hounds’ description of why it was so good, I can only add that it was hard to restrain myself from grabbing more than my fair share. Thanks to the ample portion sizes, when everyone was full there were still a few pieces left. As I took my last piece of this manna from heaven, Peter offered me the last bun to go with it. “Oh no, I couldn’t take the last one” I protested, obviously lying, but everyone insisted so what could I do? Even though I was full, my last bite was as delicious as my first. At $10.95 for a big portion this is a great value.

                  The fish head surprised me by having so much meat— it must have been a very big fish! It was very good, but for me it didn’t quite equal the braised pork. The chicken wings didn’t sound exciting but had excellent flavor and texture. I enjoyed the intense flavor of the kidneys. The duck soup was plain but pleasant.

                  In summary my impressions of the Noodle Shop are—

                  1) Integrity— Good hearty cooking with no frills or pretensions.
                  2) Generous portion sizes
                  3) Only moderately spicy
                  4) Did I mention the awesome Braised Bacon Cut Pork?

                  Thank you Victoria, for setting up a great chowdown!

                  Noodle Shop
                  164 W 25th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94403

                  1. Today I returned for lunch and after discussing Mao favorite dish of braised pork I found that they had a second one somewhat the normal Kow Yuke. I tried it for lunch, and found the sweeter somewhat more like the Shanghai Pork Shoulder with darker sauce.

                    The waiter was able to tell that the one I order was a sweeter darker sauce and the other was less sweet the sauce is lighter in color.

                    Now I am ready to try cooking it soon.

                    Love the lunch specials for about 7 dollars and now they have a 3 dishes for $21 dinner including rice I think. You can pick from about forty items. I did not see this offer when we had the meal last week.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: yimster

                      I returned last week to try the 3 for 21 dollars dishes. We ordered
                      Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, Dry Braised Green Beans and Chicken with Garlic Sauce. Very large portions, good fresh ingredients but bland in taste. The dishes we order at the chowdown were full of flavor and spicing. Not with the three dishes we order. I think we need to try some more or return for the Hunan dishes I am do the more full flavor dishes.

                    2. i believe kong xin cai is translated as chinese watercress

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: 52X

                        That's one of many common names. It's also called water spinach, ong choy, etc.

                      2. As the last one to post, I don't have too much to add. The food was better than I expected, the price was lower than expected, and the service was much better than usual at this price point. Can't beat that.

                        My favorite dish was the fish head. Half a fish head to be more exact, yes, it must be an enormous fish. Quite salty and intense saucing, you definitely need rice with this. I loved the sweetness and soft texture of the fresh water fish.

                        The braised pork was lovely too, more restrained and subtly nuanced than I would have expected for the Chairman's favorite dish, or maybe that's the way it's made here. I liked the small size of the mantou so that I didn't fill up on too much bread. Pulling the steamed bun apart, I loved the sweet aroma of yeasty dough. One bun was enough to match with three chunks of the meat, and that's all I could eat of this dish.

                        Yimster's thread on the Home Cooking board

                        Romolo's Halloween thread

                        1. I went by Mao's Kitchen last week for lunch and had their Bacon Cut Braised Pork for the first time since the Chowdown. It was a huge disappointment. The dish they served me was a pale shadow of the one we got at the Chowdown. The thin, watery sauce had very little flavor.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: charliemyboy

                            Which one did you have on one of my three visit I have had the one we had at the chowdown and one which is closer to the Gok Yuke which is sweeter and to my taste not as good as the Cantonese or Hakka ones.

                            When my diet permits I will be back.

                            1. re: yimster

                              It would be great if I just ordered the wrong thing, but I don't think so. The dish I got last week had the exact same name as the one at the Chowdown-- "Braised Bacon Cut Pork" (although "bacon" was misspelled on the menu as "bacou"). It is no longer #49 on the menu, that position belongs to a totally unrelated dish. It also looked similar to Victoria's Chowdown photo so I think it's the same one we ordered then.

                              1. re: charliemyboy

                                I returned this weekend with a couple of friends and reordered Mao's pork with steamed bread. I found the favor was not as rich and as favorful as before. The sauce was weaker too, I hope it was any off day or maybe my mind remember it being better than actually was. But I may have to try again some day later on. .