Sichuan dinner: R & Z's Ping Pong at the Gateway Shopping Center in Wayne
TL;DR version: authentic Sichuan, good sauces, very competent execution, fresh veggies. Come eat here (at dinner).
This reviews the dinner I enjoyed Sunday night at 8P. See other people's thoughts: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/834159
My friend and I arrived to find a relatively empty dining room. There was lots of wood and lacquer with low lighting. It looked clean. Staffing ratios were high as there was about one staff person per table. We were seated catercorner from the kitchen, but didn't see any kitchen action or restrooms (previous complaints mentioned that the men's room is not screened off, but I wasn't in a position to judge). It was cold, but the man who seated us immediately offered to turn it down or off if we were too cold. We were also immediately given water and menus. There were two menus with the single page listing their house specials with everything translated. I will post their takeout menu which incorporates both menus.
We decided on some dishes we really wanted to order and also asked for recommendations from our waitress and the man who seated us. I specified that we enjoyed "zheng chuan wei," with a request for spice and peppercorn on the side, as my friend doesn't enjoy that flavoring like I do. The waitress heartily recommended the pickled pepper-style dishes (the fifth section under House Specials), saying that that was what they normally ate, given that they are a chuanwei (Sichuan style) restaurant. We then received our very generously portioned dishes in the following sequence which was how we had ordered: rice, vegetable, pork, fish, chicken appetizer.
We, therefore, ended up getting an off-menu dish of some kind of pickled peppers with tilapia which had neither the weird tilapia taste that some unfortunately have but were incredibly tender. Tilapia pieces came covered in what looked like, but was not as hot as, red and green Thai birdeye chilis with very little of a light clear sauce. The chef who made it came out of the kitchen and told me that he started using these peppers recently, so it may be a different version than what they had cooked before.
I really wanted to try their water-cooked fish (currently listed as M03. Poached Fish w. Cabbage in Hot Chilli Sauce), but as we had already agreed to try their fish (and as my friend was not willing to try the intestine or kidney), we tried their pork instead. One of the best shuizhu sauces I've ever had! Thinly slices of pork were served on top of Napa cabbage leaves with a garnish of chili flakes and cilantro sprigs. I was given freshly ground Sichuan peppercorn in a little dish (it normally comes on top).
As I had also asked about their current vegetables, the waitress mentioned shanyao, or mountain yam. One of my favorite Asian vegetables, it is a long slender tuber (I've seen it at Assi in North Wales) with a light brown skin and white flesh. I usually have it in soup, but here, it was stir-fried with xingbaogu (king oyster mushroom) and a little celery. Although it was not spicy nor overly seasoned, it was a good foil to the strong flavors of the other dishes. The shanyao had a crispness that I usually associate with cauliflower. This is not on the menu, either.
Finally, I gave in and ordered a cold appetizer. The Chinese name translates to Mouthwatering Chicken (I like saying Saliva Chicken =D), but it is listed on the menu as C04. Steamed Chicken w. House Chilli Sauce. The chicken, both dark and light meat, came in consistently small slivers without any bones, covered in a brown sauce that had both chili and Sichuan peppercorn flavor (it had good mala) and garnished by more cilantro sprigs and chili pepper flakes. This dish can be prepared in a number of interpretations, but Ping Pong's version was highly satisfactory.
Quibbles: our rice wasn't very good. It was okay, but not quite good.
I worry that this place won't survive. Given how few people were there, and only three or four take-out orders were picked up while we were eating, this place may not make it for much longer. We had very prompt and responsive friendly service, perhaps due to the lack of business. As half the customers there were not Asian (I saw one white couple that had a drypot-style dish listed under House Specials as N01-08, XYZ w. Spicy Sauce in Hot Pot), I didn't see any favorable treatment of Chinese people. The staff responded with genuine interest when asked about authentic Chinese dishes and made many suggestions for what I should order next time.
I can't wait to return!
Edit: The waitress told me that the fish, pork, and chicken dishes were each prepared by someone different. So I'd think any dinner would be a great dinner, dependent upon your choices.
When I was there for lunch, it was hopping (as is that whole Gateway Center) which except for the Outback and Taste of India feels more like a lunch destination than a dinner destination. Hope they can make it. I dont know what their rent is like there, or whether they can make it on lunch alone, but Sunday in the summer is not a good measure for how well a restaurant is going to do.