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Real Sichuan (spicy) near KOP

I heard that Chef Zhang is back. That's good news for all of us who loves his spicy food and Sichuan dishes. His new place occupies what used to be Tokyo Fusion in the Gateway Shopping Center near the intersection of Route 202 and Route 252. The old neon sign of Tokyo Fusion is still on display but, sure enough, he has hand-written signs taped to the glass door that say "Rez's Ping Pong" and "川味坊". He was there wrapping wonton yesterday when we dropped in for dinner.

We ordered 4 dishes: Ma Po Tofu, Water-Boiled Fish, Sliced Ginger/Shredded Duck, and Pickled Pepper/Tripe. With the exception of Ma Po Tofu, everything else was good - spicy, fresh, the right texture, with as-remembered flavors. I was crying not just because of the heat but also because I was very happy. As for the Ma Po Tofu, I was disappointed by the silken tofu they used instead of the traditional todu I preferred. But the dish was still better than what other Chinese restaurants could manage to produce.

I am rating his food with 4 stars because I don't believe I can find better Sichuan anywhere else easily. Service was attentive but unprofessional, similar to what one gets at other Chinese restaurant. Decor and ambience are similar to the 2 Exton restaurants where Chef Zhang worked 2-3 years ago. .

This morning I sent email out to all my local Chinese friends to let them know about this place. I expect to see some of them there tonight. Yes, I am going back. They are smoking ducks with tea leaves today. Can't wait to try it.

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  1. Where was Zhang before this restaurant? How does it compare to Han Dynasty?

    3 Replies
    1. re: cwdonald

      He was at Z. Wei (current name) when I first tasted his food. His old partner there is the one he is working with at Ping Pong now. Z. Wei has changed hands at least twice since he left.

      He later was at Han Dynasty when that restaurant first opened up in Exton. We followed him to Han Dynasty then. But since he left 2-3 years ago, I found food quality at Han Dynasty not very consistent in subtle and not-so-subtle ways - dishes tasted different when #1 cook was off or when they hired a new #1, etc, the normal kind of situation you run into when the owner can't cook him/herself.and can't set standards.

      Guess I prefer to bet my money on known quality rather than a variable one.

      1. re: borntolovefood

        Thanks for the great background. In greater Philadelphia Han Dynasty certainly has the reputation (along with Sichuan Tasty House in Chinatown) as being the most authentic sichuan flavors. I have heard people complain over the years that the Exton branch has been inconsistent. I frequent the Royersford, or Philadelphia branches and have not noticed that issue, but perhaps I do not have the palate to appreciate the difference. I look forward to trying chef Zhang's new home! Thanks for the great write up.

        1. re: cwdonald

          I recently ate at Four Rivers in Chinatown and had very good peppercorn chicken--lots of Szechuan peppercorn and the chicken was very crispy. Not quite as good as Han's, but very very good. Dan dan noodles were ok, not nearly as good as Hans. I got delivery from Szechuan Tasty House recently, the three pepper chicken was not crispy and had no Szechuan peppercorns, just doused in red pepper flakes, and the dan dan noodles were--no joke--linguine pasta noodles. The food tasted good but was like a fast food version of Szechuan.

          The other dishes we had at Four Rivers, especially the lion head meatball, were very good too, and it's dirt cheap. Highly recommended.

    2. Byo or liquor license?

      1. I had to try some of Chef Zhang's fare yesterday and was very pleased with the kung pao chicken - just chicken, arbols, peanuts and scallion with a spicy sauce and slightly charred from being done in a very hot wok. HOWEVER, I'd give the place a few weeks to get its act together. My order was wrong to start with, soup was served cold and had to be sent back for reheating, chopsticks never came, tea never came, a request for water had my glass taken and returned five minutes later, and the check required a 15-minute grand pow-wow in front of the POS screen while they figured out how to work it. When I got the check, it was in Chinese without prices listed and the total (I think a few dollars too much) hand written. Don't get me wrong. The staff was more than gracious and apologetic but they have a way to go before they can manage a full house for dinner, let alone the scant seven of us there for lunch. The old sign for Tokyo Fusion is still up, there are no take out menus and no wall decor to speak of so I hope this isn't an underfunded venture that will go belly up in a few weeks.
        P.S. And it would be nice to screen off the urinals in full view from the dining area when the men's room door is opened and, for us non-Mandarins, have the daily specials written in English.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chefpaulo

          Scheduled to go there tomorrow 4/4/12 for dinner and since the reservation was made by a friend of the chef/owner Mr. Zhang (the "Z" in R & Z's Ping Pong), I expect the food to be the best they can offer. Will report back.

          Co-owner Mr. R said they welcome feedback. He seemed to be aware of the issues mentioned in Chefpaulo's posting. I heard the place is pretty busy at lunch time during the week. The place certainly has become a spot for local Chinese to gather.

        2. Have been there a few times since they opened. They have their own sign now - R&Z's Ping Pong, however, it is still hard to stop in a crowded strip mall. It is close to Panera.

          Everything I have tried has been delicious and would recommend the Wontons in Chili oil, Poached pork in chili oil and Lamb hotpot.

          The dishes have a depth of flavor without being overpoweringly spicy.

          3 Replies
          1. re: percyn

            Thanks for the report; can you tell me about the hotpot? And would you say that the "poached pork in chili oil" is usually the dish known as shuizhu rou ("water-cooked" pork), which is slices of pork in a pool of chili oil and seasonings, and usually, but not always, some veggies like bok choy?

            Have you tried anything you wouldn't recommend?

            1. re: mookleknuck

              The lamb hotpot is very similar to the "drypot" you get at Han.

              Yes, the poached pork in chili oil is exactly how you describe it and it was a recommendation from the owner when I asked him for some specialties.

              I have not found a bad dish yet but would probably not rave about their Hot & Sour soup. Prefer Han's Dan Dan noodles and Kung Pao slightly more.

              1. re: percyn

                Thanks for the confirmation and also the warning! This way, I'll only order the lamb hotpot if I'm in the mood for shuizhu yangrou, not mala yangguo.

                (I almost never order hot and sour soup without a trusted source's recommendation since that is almost always a guaranteed disappointment., but I thank you for the warning all the same.)

          2. Went tonight & ordered just a few of my favorite Han classics for comparison - Dan Dan Noodles and Shrimp with dry hot peppers....and some new things - 3 Vegetables, and Pork Dry Hot Pot......winner is.....Dry Hot Pot with Pork!!! totally sichuan - I love it! Dan Dan could have had A LOT more sichuan peppercorns...and the shrimp was heavily battered and puffy. So verdict is - will stay at Han for Dan Dan and my favorite Shrimp with dry hot peppers. But so happy that there is something with excellent sichuan nearby to get lots of NEW yummy yummy dishes!

            2 Replies
            1. re: yummykimmy

              Do you get the shrimp with dry pepper at Han's? I have tried the Chicken with dry peppers several dozen times but never the shrimp!

              1. re: percyn

                I love the shrimp with the dry hot pepper at Han's - it's not on the menu, but they will make it for you. it was one of Han's recommendations many years ago when there was just the Exton location.

            2. i went yesterday for lunch and was pleasantly surprised by a lunch specials menu for a very great price.
              my friend and i both had the sauteed chicken with chili peppers (i had white rice, he had fried) and hot and sour soup.
              the soup was nice and spicy with all the usual suspects. the chicken was tender and tasty, fairly spicy with unique tasting chilies and well portioned. his fried looked good as it was not at all greasy! i believe it costs $6.95 for the special (dependent on the item it ranges), well worth it!
              they serve green tea which is a pleasant surprise.
              i can't wait to go back for dinner, i want to try a hot pot item!

              1. Had some of my friend's leftovers last night and it was quite good. Well-prepared fuqi feipian (tripe and lungs), good beef with bamboo (it was seasoned with cumin and sichuan peppercorns), okay mapo tofu, yuxiang eggplant, kongxincai (water spinach), and decent shuizhuyu. I'll be sure to visit now that I know the leftovers are so quality!

                1 Reply
                1. re: mookleknuck

                  I got take out on Saturday and was very pleased. I went with the Spicey Chicken and Mongolian Beef. The chicken was wonderful...with just the right amount of spice. The Mongolian beef was tender and came with mushrooms and onions.

                  Compared to the typical Americanized chinese food that I have suffered through...this will be my go spot for right now. Will have to try some of the more authentic meals in the future.

                2. Why don't I luck out like the rest of you? I went back to Ping Pong today and came away after a ho-hum experience. While service has definitely improved since my Feb. 24th post, my soup was still served barely warmer than room temperature with two highly durable wontons (evidently manufactured by Michelin) and just three small scallion rings. My chicken in spicy garlic sauce was OK but could have used much more heat and less cornstarch. The tea did arrive this time but was weak and tasteless. What am I missing here? Are the lunch specials given less consideration and care than the more exotic menu items? What is a "must have" dish that could change my mind about this place?
                  P.S. And the daily specials are still in Mandarin.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Chefpaulo

                    I still haven't gone to the restaurant in person, so I can't speak for Ping Pong specifically, but in general: daily specials are usually only written in Chinese (Mandarin is the main spoken "dialect") for a number of reasons (there are a number of CH posts on why this is), but are not necessarily "exotic," to use your word; lunch specials are usually American-Chinese and, therefore, are executed with any possible amount of skill and care; like any small mom-and-pop restaurant, which I assume this is, after the staff learn what you like (and probably after you ask for recommendations from the staff), you'll be able to figure out what they do best, food-wise.

                    Your original post dealt with service issues, but this post mentions your disagreeable food experience. When do you visit? Do you only visit during the week at lunch? What kinds of food are you looking for? Do you like actual Chinese food, and if so, which cuisines? What are your service expectations? What is the most important part of eating out for you? What are dealbreakers? Judging from a quick scan of some of your posts, you seem to eat a lot of Americanized Chinese... I think most of the posts in this thread mention Sichuan dishes.

                    My meal was composed of leftovers from someone's dinner, so I would endeavor to find out when the head chef is cooking and only go during those times. I'd also ask what his specialties are (it looks like it might be Taiwanese-style Sichuan, based on borntolovefood's report of his previous experience working at Han Dynasty). Finally, if all else fails, I'd ask someone who can read and speak Chinese to go with you at some time to do some real chowing.

                    I'll report back after I make it out there, which may not be soon, given the many other places in this area to try. Good luck.

                    1. re: mookleknuck

                      I'm not comprehending here. There are several disconnects in your post. You say "I haven't gone to the restaurant in person" yet say "My meal was composed of leftovers from someone's dinner, so I would endeavor to find out when the head chef is cooking..." Please explain the connection. ( If other readers understand, please chime in.)

                      Your ensuing interrogatory was also curious since you have never been there. I enjoy all Chinese cuisines and spent three weeks touring China to experience them. However, I found the Ping Pong lunch special substandard considering the hype about the Chef. That's about all I can say.

                      1. re: Chefpaulo

                        Best I can interpret, Mookle had leftovers at someone's house, and that person had dined at the restaurant the previous day. I think he was saying that the quality was good, and if his meal was from the head chef, then it is worth going, but make sure you know when the head chef cooks.

                        FWIW, the lunch specials that you describe Chef sound more like the americanized chinese dishes than some of the more authentic ones.. please correct me if I am wrong. That said, it really sounds like one might be better served going at dinner time

                        1. re: cwdonald

                          Or asking the staff what the Chinese-written specials are? I agree that ordering chicken in garlic sauce and wonton soup is a poor way to judge a Szechuan restaurant. These kind of places often have two sets of dishes; one of Chinese-American dishes and one of traditional Chinese dishes.

                          1. re: barryg

                            Points well taken. I was pressed for time and dared not risk a repeat of the first visit service debacle. Still, the soup was a turn-off,, Americanized or not. I will try again and get back to all.

                            1. re: Chefpaulo

                              I learned to ask for details of a soup before ordering any in any Chinese restaurant. Rule of thumb: if one can order an individual cup, then don't. Chances are it's pre-made and has been sitting there since 11 AM that day. This means I don't order egg-drop, hot-and-sour, wonton, not even from the fancier places like Yangming or Margaret Kuo. Surprisingly, some take-out places cook hot-and-sour fresh for each order so I go to them (1 near Long Wood Garden and 1 on Johnson Hwy outside of Norristown) and ask them to hold the sugar but add some vineger and, voila, I get to enjoy some hearty soup that's tasty and HOT.

                              Just got back from a lunch at Ping Pong. I noticed that the ratio of Chinese and Western cutomers has shifted dramatically. Asked Mr. R (the R in R&Z) why, He said he did not know and did not want to know...Mr. Z (the Z in R&Z, head chef) told me he expects some serious help to ease his workload in 2 months time. So perhaps he is training someone or waiting for someone to show up. But my friend and I had a very good meal: Shrimp with Hwai Shan (a root vegi that's white and crunchy), Fish with Three Peppers (tangy and spicy, very beautiful to look at and very tasty) and the appetizer of mixed vegitable Si (thin stripes). I was satisfied and happy. This is in contrast to the meal I had recently at the new Ping Wei (near KOP) where all dishes are either too sweet or too spicy hot but devoid of flavor, where noodles taste raw/dead and rice too hard and where owners/waitstaff equate talking nonesense to good service. Yikes.

                              Some of my Chinese friends are not happy with R&Z for one reason or another (dishes are 'too expensive', quality not consistent). But I am still a fan, as long as Mr. Z is in the Kitchen.

                        2. re: Chefpaulo

                          Now that I've eaten here at "the restaurant in person," I hope to be able to clarify your confusion and answer your question for recommendations.

                          As I did not mean to be elliptical or confusing, let me restate. In my post above, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8341... I mentioned that I "had some of my friend's leftovers." Then in my response to your post http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8341... I mentioned "My meal was composed of leftovers from someone's dinner." They are the same instance. To sum, my friend went to dinner at Ping Pong and I ate some of that dinner's leftovers. Apologies for any confusion. I only wanted to offer tentative recommendations given that my initial meal was someone else's leftovers.

                          My "ensuing interrogatory" [sic] was to try and ascertain how certain variables of your experiences at Ping Pong interacted with your current knowledge and expectations of Chinese and American Chinese food. There's nothing wrong with expecting delicious American Chinese food when you order, but as mentioned, the recommended dishes have been mostly Sichuan classics.

                          That said, if I were ordering from their current lunch specials menu, I would try these dishes first (in no particular order): shredded pork with dry bean curd, double cooked pork, sauteed chicken with dry chili pepper, string beans, either of the egg plant dishes, or tofu/egg with baby shrimp (the last four could be hit or miss, but really, they all could be). Any of the lunch special soups *could* be good, but if I ordered them, I'd try the rice noodles in pickled cabbage soup first, and be very hungry.

                          I hope this is helpful and, if convenient, that you give some other dishes a try. It looks like the pickled pepper and hot pot dishes have multiple recommendations, while the wontons are not so great. Eh, very few Chinese restaurants in the States are good at everything on their menu as their menus are usually too large for them to specialize in that ONE amazing thing that places in Asia do. One of the many reasons why CH is awesome!

                      2. re: Chefpaulo

                        i have been twice now
                        both times got hot and sour soup which was enjoyable
                        then for a main dish the first time i had sauteed chicken with dry chili peppers and then second time i had the chicken with pickled peppers. both great and slightly different.
                        one thing i noticed is that the dry peppers have this smoky taste to them that is unique and delicious (if you eat the peppers).

                      3. Just went last night after reading this thread. The food was excellent. Had a terrific Dan Dan Noodles, Beef with Pickled Peppers and Kung Pao chicken. Can't wait to return and try out some other dishes on the large menu. I wish I lived closer.
                        Also, the staff was very nice.

                        1. I went there twice, once recently for take out only, and once about two months back to dine in. Had the bean noodle with minced pork, kung pao chicken, spicy wontons, and shrimp with walnuts both times. All were excellent. And yes, the Sichuan dishes were oily, but we expected that going in.

                          When we dined in, we also ordered fried dumplings. Somewhat incongruously, they were served after all the other dishes had been ravaged and we were almost ready to go.

                          Worth the trip again from DelCo, and convenient to Trader Joe's.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: tardis52

                            So I had lunch there with two colleagues the other day. Overall impression is its good, but not as good as Han's. Service is going to be frustrating for people that are used to one waiter taking care of them. In terms of the menu, the most authentic sichuan entrees are on the house special list. That was seperate from the big menu you are given when seated. In terms of the lunch specials, several of the more authentic dishes are included on the lunch special including double cooked pork, chicken with pickled pepper, and sauteed chicken with dry chili pepper. We did not order lunch specials but rather ordered off the main menu. We had:

                            Dan Dan Noodles - good but greasy, noodles overcooked, and not as spicy as I would like.
                            Wontons in spicy sauce.. hot but lacking any flavor from the wontons.

                            Double Cooked Pork - very nice dish, with heat, and the pork was nicely cooked.
                            Chef Special Sausage with leek - sausage had a nice flavor, leeks were a bit tough, overall flavor of the dish was salt.
                            Dry Braised Frog with spicy sauce in Hot Pot- Hot pot was very good, nice mixture of vegetables and you got the sting of the sichuan peppercorns, but the frog was a pain to eat. I would have liked this dish more if we had ordered chicken or pork instead.

                            Overall I liked the food. Bit expensive for lunch (20 dollars plus tip for 3 people.) I think the key is what you order. Probably will try it at dinner.

                            1. re: cwdonald

                              I just went last night and posted about it here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/855754

                              As I've only eaten at Ping Pong once and I've only been to the Royersford and Manayunk locations of Han Dynasty, I can't speak to how consistent or inconsistent Han is versus Ping Pong. But I think that the spicing and sauces were both spicier and more authentic than Han Dynasty's. I was really fond of the floral smell and quality of the ma (numbing) that I got from the Sichuan peppercorns.

                              Why was the frog so annoying to eat? Too many bones?

                              Would you say that Han Dynasty is better because of its service and/or because of its food? If the latter, in what way are they better? Maybe I just keep going to Han Dynasty with such high expectations and am disappointed when I taste Taiwanese-style Sichuan (not that that's bad, just not usually what I want when I order Sichuan dishes). What do you think are Han Dynasty's must-haves and what do you usually order there?

                              Thanks again for all of your posts. You are truly a treasure trove of Philadelphia-area eats!

                          2. Just wanted to bump this thread as a "thank you" to the CH'ers who brought this place to my attention. I've now been about half a dozen times over the last couple of months, and have enjoyed myself each time. I've gotten to a point where my usual host asks, "Regular spicy?", and I get just about the perfect level for my taste. (Good heat, moderate tingling, but not overwhelming the underlying flavors. I'm guessing my "regular" is probably still a bit on the wimpy side for a true ma la fan.)

                            I usually start with the dan dan noodles, and have had tea smoked duck, poached lamb with cabbage, shredded pork with pickled peppers, and dry-braised lamb in hot pot. All terrific!

                            Anyway, thanks for the tip!

                            9 Replies
                            1. re: brandywiner

                              I liked Ping Pong until I found Pin Wei in KOP. If you like Sichuan - give it a try.

                              1. re: yummykimmy

                                What do you order when you're at Pin Wei?

                                1. re: mookleknuck

                                  We usually will order the cucumber with scallion oil, dan dan noodles, dumplings in chili oil, cumin beef, hot and spicy shrimp hot pot, spicy fresh fish hot pot and broiled whole fish with spicy sauce. I don't eat the fish - but I am told it is very good.

                                  1. re: yummykimmy

                                    i wish pin wei had a few authentic szechuan lunch options.
                                    i have gone once and had the dry chicken and chillies dish and it was good but since i work in the area i go for lunch and that gets expensive.

                                    yummykimmy - would you know if the dan dan noodles are closer to ping pong or han dynasty (which i prefer).

                                    1. re: pie22

                                      Sorry pie - not sure I can pinpoint it - my best dan dan experience was at Han - but the quality and flavor was so inconsistent over many visits. I only tried them once at ping pong and can't remember what they were like. Pin Wei is definitely consistent, but not as good as my best Han memory. My best Han memory was the crazy szechaun peppercorn - it was hot!

                                      1. re: yummykimmy

                                        no problem at all - i recall han has a nice saucy version with a little meat whereas ping pong is a lot of meat and a little sauce.

                                        1. re: pie22

                                          ok, then I would say that Pin Wei is little on meat and I wish there was more sauce! That I can talk. mooklenuck is way out of my league - or should I say I am way out of my element.

                                    2. re: yummykimmy

                                      Thanks! http://www.pinweikop.com/our-menu.html I had to check their actual menu to be sure that I wasn't salivating over incorrect mentions of hot pot (the hot pot dishes that you have listed are xiangguo style, not huoguo). That broiled whole fish with spicy sauce (xiangla kaoyu) could be really tasty. I'll have to check it out as the top of their menu also claims to have actual hot pot...

                                      1. re: yummykimmy

                                        Now that I've had Ping Pong's cumin lamb, I am really looking forward to trying Pin Wei's cumin beef.

                                2. Inspired by this thread bump, my friend and I went to Ping Pong late a few nights ago. With some discussion, I learned that they always have one of my favorite root vegetables, shanyao (山药, Chinese mountain yam, nagaimo), although it is not listed anywhere on either their regular menu or on their house specials menu. We ordered Chinese yam stirfried with pickled peppers, cumin-flavored lamb with chili sauce, and a soup with huge enoki-like mushrooms (not sure if they were enoki and just bigger than what I am used to seeing or if they were a different kind of mushroom), tomato and tilapia. Huge portions as usual and service was still kind although they were eating their staff dinner. There were four other occupied tables.

                                  Other dishes that I have found to be well-executed are: excellently seasoned fuqi feipian (on the takeout menu: C01 sliced beef and tendon w/chili sauce), xiangla feichang (L05 deep fried pork intestine w/dry peppers), shuizhuyu and rou (or really anything in their M01 Poached ... w/cabbage in hot chili sauce), pickled pepper anything. This menu is both wide and deep, and as the chef has learned to recognize me, filled with even greater possibilities. For those with less adventurous friends, the General Tso's and Indonesian fried rice always seem to go over well.