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Zoe's (Chinese): what happened?

Went last night with a small group and was extremely disappointed. Now, I haven't eaten there that often, so I don't know all the ins and outs of the menu, but the food seemed completely different this time: all the supposedly "spicy" dishes we ordered, including eggplant in garlic sauce, scallops sichuan-style, and orange beef, were barely hot. Instead they had that sweet, gloppy, orange-y Americanized-Chinese sauce that I can't stand. The orange beef was pretty much inedible: fried cutlets of beef that were very tough and chewy, doused in that sweet sauce. The eggplant was OK, but also too sweet/not spicy. The steamed Sichuan dumplings were about the only good thing we ate. Others at the table ordered bland mixed vegetable dishes. I tried them, they were fine, but totally unremarkable. did we just all order the wrong thing, or have they changed management/chef? I see they are in the process of getting a liquor license, but in the mean time you can't bring alcohol in (why is that?). Too bad because I could have used a beer as consolation for the disappointing food.

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  1. Having eaten there quite a bit back around 2005-2006, it was never really that good overall. The menu is promising, sure, but the quality was generally disappointing. I wouldn't say it's worth eating there if you have the ability to make the short drive over to Wang's or Qingdao.

    1. I eat from there frequently and always like it. The food is tasty and not greasy. However, while I agree that some of the dishes could do with being hotter (e.g. the sichuan scallops), I can never resist the diced chicken with hot peppers which is very hot (unless you completely avoid eating the peppers).

      1. We ate there very frequently in its former space, and have continued to do so in its new space -- most recently two weeks ago. We have seen no diminution in quality or spiciness. I can't think of a bland dish that we've had there, but there are a few things I've discovered I simply dislike: peking raviloi, the sichuan steamed spicy dumplings, and the lion's head meatballs in clay pot.

        We usually order primarily from the list of house specialties, north-south dishes, and sichuan dishes. Favorites include the ma po (the best in the area, I'd argue), sichuan shrimp, scallops in black pepper sauce, whatever the special veg of the day is, and tea-smoked duck. There are several dishes I like quite a lot at Zoe's, but like slightly better at Qingdao, like the lamb with spicy cumin sauce, the chongqing chicken, and the spicy sliced potato.

        I'm sorry to you had a bad time. My guess is that it was a combination of it being an off night, and not ordering enough from the things they do exceptionally well. I hope you try it again sometime.

        20 Replies
        1. re: litchick

          I'm assuming the sichuan scallops were pretty much equivalent to the sichuan shrimp, and they're in the "house specialties" section, but still I was not wowed. Since when does Sichuan-style mean fried and swimming in sweet, sticky sauce? I expected some complexity and at least a bit of heat in the sauce. Next time we'll hit Qingdao or Wang's. thanks for the input.

          1. re: bella_sarda

            The tricky thing is that there are some things on the menu, in different locations, that are nearly identical in the English names, but are actually different dishes. I don't speak or read Chinese, so it's been a process of trial and error for us. For example, there are two dishes that are basically called sichuan shrimp -- one is sweeter, and has a thick fried battered crust. It's got heat, but it's sweet heat, and a lot of bell peppers and onions on the plate. The other sichuan shrimp isn't sweet, and doesn't have that thick batter crust. Go figure. If I could read the Chinese names of things, it would probably be easier to remember which is which.

            1. re: litchick

              OK, this is kind of helpful. Next time maybe I can ask the server for the "non-batter-fried" version of the Sichuan dishes, and specify that I want it hot and not sweet. Although, most likely, there won't be a next time. This is what drives me batty about so many Chinese restaurants!

              1. re: bella_sarda

                Well, if you like ma po tofu, drop in there again sometime just for that. It's exceptional.

                1. re: litchick

                  I *almost* ordered the ma po. Next time I most certainly will.

              2. re: litchick

                This is an important point. I have had only good meals at Zoe's, and have found my favorite dishes to be very consistent. Last time we went, however, I ordered the Chongqing chicken and the waiter (a new waiter at the time) accidentally communicated it to the chef as Kung Pao Chicken, which I assume has a similar Chinese name because it has a similar premise (though of course a far different execution). They were very happy to switch it for the right thing.

                1. re: hckybg

                  It's nice of you but chong2qing4 and gong1bao3 don't sound the same! It probably speaks to the same inclination towards using the "race-based two menu system" that many other reviewers have mentioned on this site. In any case of less than 100% clarity in what you said, the waiter assumed you wanted the thing that non-Chinese are more likely to order...

                  1. re: Luther

                    They are pretty good about giving me the dry diced chicken with hot peppers when I ask for it, though they ask for confirmation. I can't imagine many non-Asian customers order that (twice).
                    As a total ignoramus, I actually don't know if I'm SUPPOSED to eat the entire pile of fresh green and dried, roasted red chili peppers. But if I didn't, about 75% of the content of the dish as served would be wasted, so I eat as much as I dare (the day after effect varies!).

                    1. re: chickendhansak

                      The dried chiles are the ones that I don't always eat (not just on that dish), but more because the texture gets old and not due to the flavor/heat. I think it's all intended to be consumed though.

                      1. re: jgg13

                        Interesting to get another view. I agree about the texture. I actually quite enjoy eating them but I have a cause and effect theory about eating too many of them. That dish is addictive.

                        1. re: chickendhansak

                          I like eating them for a while, particularly when they're a bit softer than normal. But after a while it feels like you're chewing on leather for the whole meal, and that's just not something that I dig.

                    2. re: Luther

                      Thanks for the clarification--it was a new waiter so I assume was just an innocent mix-up, as the other items we ordered (lotus root, I believe, and lion's head meatball) arrived as ordered. Zoe's has always been good about not questioning orders in my experience--I have ordered chongqing chicken probably 15 times and never been asked if I know what I am getting into. It is very good!

                      1. re: hckybg

                        That's one thing I've wondered about ordering via foodler & such, as they can't see you and can't hear your voice. I suppose they could see "John Smith" and realize you're not going to be chinese, but that'd be the only thing that they could base those decisions are on.

                        I know that back in the olden days when you'd actually call in your delivery/takeout order that there were places where I could say "extra spicy" or whatever and it usually seemed to actually work whereas I'd get the funny look and it'd come out "extra mild" when I'd dine in. Could've been in my head, small sample size, etc tho, so YMMV

                        1. re: hckybg

                          Chongqing chicken? THANK YOU! You've connected the dots for me and now I know a more search-friendly name for this dish, which I've only ever had at Zoe's. I'll be making my own come the weekend!

                          1. re: chickendhansak

                            sounds like you might like the Chung Qing chicken at New Shanghai too (try also their chicken with spicy capsicum, for comparison)

                            1. re: barleywino

                              Thanks for the tip, now on my list.

                            2. re: chickendhansak

                              Actually there's a bit more to this story. The "dry diced chicken with hot peppers" that Zoe's prepares looks EXACTLY llike most Google image search hits for Chongqing chicken or as it appears to be written sometimes, Chong Qing La Zi Ji.

                              Yet last night I discovered that both items were on the Zoe's menu, separately. (I'd assumed hckybg was ordering the same thing but by a more well known name.)

                              Turns out that the Zoe's version of Chongqing chicken is similar to the dry diced chicken with hot peppers, but not the same, being somewhere between that dish and kung pao chicken renditions. It comes with peanuts and the toasted red chile peppers are chopped up and well integrated into the dish, unlike the other style which serves them whole. And there are no green chile peppers. Also, possibly a stronger taste from the Sichuan pepper. The chicken preparation was the same.

                              So, two different versions of much the same thing.

                              1. re: chickendhansak

                                Right - the 'dry diced chicken ...' is under the house specialties and the 'chongqing chicken' is under the sichuan portion of the menu. I like your description of the latter being a bit of a hybrid w/ the kung pao. I like both dishes, but generally prefer the latter, i have to be in the right mood for the dry diced chicken. I find their 'chongqing chicken' to be a bit tastier, although sometimes it can be *way* too salty (and I almost never say that). Also, it tends to not be in the same realm heatwise so it's a little friendlier to other folks that happen to be eating with me :)

                                1. re: jgg13

                                  I also much prefer the Chongqing Chicken at Zoe's than the dry diced chicken--I don't remember them having much difference in heat (but haven't had the latter for a long time) but do really like the balance of flavors in the former. Is Chong Qing La Zi Ji the same as what is sometimes called three pepper chicken, with the dry fried chicken, green peppers, Szechuan peppercorns, and whole dried peppers? I haven't found a good rendition of this in Boston but may miss it on menus since I unfortunately can't read Chinese so have to go by the English translations, which are never consistent.

                    3. re: bella_sarda

                      Yeah, I don't really understand "Sichuan style." I mean, it's a decent description of something in a ma/la chile oil sauce, but in reality it is most frequently used to refer to unremarkable American style dishes.

                  2. re: the booze. it's illegal to byob, even with places that do not have a license. not in every town, but some and in somerville and boston, yes.

                    1. Yeah, Zoe's was our go to place for delivery a couple years ago. We ordered for the first time since moving back to Boston last night and I've got to say that it was pretty bad. Really bland noodles, mediocre dumplings, hard, stringy sesame beef. I don't know what happened but this is definitely not the Zoe's we remember. Any other suggestions for good/authenti chinese takeout in somerville?

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: dinnerbell

                        as mentioned above, both wangs and qingdao are nearby. also, mulan is very good and over by kendall, so not too far either. somerville is actually probably the best place in the city for chinese. i like zoes too, but they--like wangs and qingdao--are definitely inconsistent.

                        1. re: autopi

                          Id say inconsistent is the best word. I've ordered from them somewhat regularly for a few years now. I've noticed that there can be a huge range of quality, sometimes the same dish is prepared completely differently. I've just chalked it up to different chefs

                        2. re: dinnerbell

                          Sesame beef is not "authentic" anything, so that's probably your first problem.

                        3. I once ordered 4 Northern Chinese special entrees, and every one was underwhelming. Everything was OK, but I couldn't tell if the dishes were truly representative of the style/region, because they were barely indistinguishable from decent quality American-Chinese fare.