Chef Ma in San Jose for Chengdu, Sichuan Cooking
Earlier this month I walked through again the odd shopping complex on South DeAnza that houses various after school programs geared to Chinese kids as well as several food businesses including Sogo Bakery and Q-Cup in a mishmash of stalls, kiosks and food court seating. The largest eating space toward the back, formerly operated by Foodtopia ( http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/41500 ) and others since then, is now Chef Ma. The owner is from Chengdu and promotes the style of cooking as “Less oil and less salt, no MSG, healthy food”. Here are photos of the menus:
Early on a Friday evening, the other tables were filled with Chinese parents joined in waves by their young kids as each finished their enrichment programs for the day. While Chef Ma has been open for nearly a year, none seemed to be regulars and we all were eyeing our neighbors to figure out what to order. Everything going by looked tasty. Noodles and a couple appetizers seemed to be the most popular way to order.
The complimentary peanuts were wonderful, roasted in oil, lightly singed, and salty. Seasoned with dried red chile pods and some savory bits, the peanuts were so good, I wrapped up the rest in a paper napkin to take home with me.
Dry Noodles B3. Sichuan style noodle with spicy ground pork, $6.95, or dan dan mian was presented with flair and verticality. Heaped up in an imposing mountain, the dan dan mian ingredients were layered and somewhat separated so that one could mix in more or less of a flavor element to taste.
While the floral and citrusy scent of Sichuan peppercorns perfumed the dish, neither their flavor nor numbing qualities were prominent on the palate. But that’s my only negative. The biggest and most pleasant surprise was to discover chewy hand-pulled noodles as the base.
The red oil had far less sesame paste or peanut butter, if any at all, than most other Sichuan restaurants serve. This was also not as sweet as many.
So delighted with the dandan noodles, I ordered a couple more things to-go. Appetizer A2. Strips in chili sauce, $4.99, or fu qi fei pian, shown here packed to go was very garlicky and spicy hot but a bit light on numbing peppercorns. It featured a good amount of tripe, perfectly tender beef shank, and aromatic cilantro, scallions and peanuts.
Dim Sum A5. Pumpkin cake, $1.99/order, included two pieces. Chubby pumpkin-flavored mochi pancakes were filled with moderately sweet red bean paste. Deep-fried, the non-oily lightly crisp crust segued to a chewy soft interior. Freshly prepared and done so well.
My server was great, swooping in with a glass of ice water that I had earlier declined, when he saw me start to ignite from the chile peppers. Chef Ma’s cooking is solid and I have a very good feeling about this spot. Let’s hear some more eating reports.
1600 S DeAnza Blvd. #30
Hours differed on three signs, suggest calling ahead.
There were three new (to me) waitresses on Saturday night, with my usual waiter nowhere to be found. Apparently he's still around, but on different nights. As always, it was quiet, except for takeout orders.
Tried the "fresh chili fish noodle" soup. Their translations are about as good as my zhongwen, but I guessed it to be like a shuizhu with flat rice noodles. It's marked as ** on the menu, but my waitress described it as "regular spicy". Alrighty then.
Like the other dishes I've had, it's really meant to be shared. It's a massive bowl of broth, topped with large, tender bits of whitefish and a smattering of chili. Not much in the way of peppercorns floating on top, but I did hit pepper with a mouthful of soup, and it caught on the back of my throat, which resulted in much coughing. My waitress was amused. It wasn't overly spicy, but I was mopping my brow by the end. I cleaned out my bowl.
Like the shredded potato, the rest of the "small" appetizer portions have been crossed off the menu. I ended up with a large plate of the jerky, half of which I had to take home - it's very good after marinating in the fridge overnight.
Finally, belatedly, sampled this place in a lunch detour after business in the Deep South Bay -- to be rewarded by the best dàn dàn miàn I've ever had: complex, exuberant, satisfying. Those notes also seemed echoed in many other dishes visible around the room, and their diners' convivial reactions. I spotted dishes with colorful appetizing ingredient combos, or heaped with fresh vegetables, noting some for future. Seems like a kitchen with not just skill but flair.
The helpful, English-fluent waiter, quizzed re the real "Chef Ma" after the meal, said chef is from Chengdu area, and also -- interesting detail I haven't seen mentioned before -- worked 10 years at Chef Chu's, Los Altos. (Such is why I ask about chefs, when trying new restaurants.)
Spicy peanuts on the table were indeed addictive; seasonings in this batch included trace of hua jiao. (A diner at another table nearby, served a noodle dish, proceeded to pour his table's peanuts onto it as a garnish.)
Dàn dàn miàn (DDM) was per Melanie's description linked below: vegetable layers and garnishes, raw crushed garlic in oil, thinnish (2-3mm) fresh noodles. Sesame seeds (looked like both whole and crushed) I could taste, but saw no obvious paste. Generous red oil pooled at bowl bottom. I found this DDM oily, but not too hot, declining ice water that the waiter offered (with an expectant look, as I finished the dish) in favor of tea.
The waiter had touched up the DDM at the kitchen window with a shaker, of sesame I think. DDM arrived along with a quick gesture indicating one might stir up noodles and garnishes. Mere inquiry on hua jiao (which I noticed in the saucing once I tasted the DDM, but not on top) brought a small bowl of the ground spice on the side, for adding to taste -- a good option.
Other dishes tried (these as take-out): Shanghai small buns (8, $6.95, "takes 15 minutes to make") -- bok choy and pork filling, came with vinegared dipping sauce; delicate. Aptly translated Sichuan spicy "beef-jerky" appetizer (** on menu -- the spicy dishes are noted *, like ma po tofu, or **) was tender, just moderately spicy, its subtler flavorings including anise. Ma po tofu (MPTF), more in current DOTM thread --
-- typified "good" (i.e. faithfully Sichuanese) versions I've had in the region.
This visit only took a detour, but borrowing Michelin's classic lingo in Europe I found Chef Ma "vaut le voyage" and will gladly return to try much more of its menu. Very moderate prices. Site of this simple restaurant in a cavernous shared building is unusual, but directions others have posted made it easy to find. Easy freeway access on 85.
Stopped by here last night to get a quick take-out order of cold noodles with chicken and the dry-fried string beans. Total $15.12 with tax.
The seasoning sauce for the noodles is packed separately for to-go orders. Again, loved the hand-pulled noodles and they stay chewy all the way to the finish since they're not continuing to cook. Chicken was not hand-shredded this time. The chopped breast meat was way too dry. I would consider asking for no chicken and for extra cucumbers next time, as the hard, dry pieces detracted from the dish.
String beans were on the mature side, but still a delicious dish.
I stopped by at 4:45pm yesterday to find a "We'll return at 5pm" sign by the till. Lights were all off, no servers, but the hatch to the kitchen was open and uncle was busily cooking up orders. Turns out he was making a large catering order along with smaller takeout orders for some aunties who showed up at 5pm, which is also when the waiter appeared and turned on the lights.
My dan dan mien arrived after a lot of sizzling in the kitchen with equal flair but less verticality, having settled into (what I suspect was) a deeper bowl. I'm not complaining, though: it could easily have fed an entire table. Noodles were indeed chewy, pork and oil were delicious, and I suffered the same time-delayed pyrotechnics, although I survived on hot tea.
I too tried the pumpkin pancakes. So often things like this are just a soggy lump, but they were exactly as you describe: crisp and decided non-oily! After demolishing both of them I was about ready to go face down onto the table, so no bonus dishes I'm afraid.
And yes, there's a sign saying they're closed on Mondays.
Thanks for reporting in, glad you enjoyed it. Yep, I was a little let down to now see the tall food treatment on the dandan mian at our chowdown. Still, I like Chef Ma's cooking a lot . . . and the food court setting is sort of half-way to street food casualness.
re: Melanie Wong
I went back tonight with a friend from out of town (this sort of thing isn't exactly found in abundance where he's from) and it was absolutely dead between 6 and 7pm. I really hope they're doing sufficient take-out business to keep them going! That's two visits and no twice-cooked pork, third time's the charm...
re: Dave MP
You're welcome. Sorry to be so mysterious about the hours. One menu says daily 11am to 9pm, then another states 11-2:30 and 5-9pm. I think I saw a sign that it's closed one day a week, perhaps Tuesday? Then I noticed another sign that it was closed a half-day temporarily, either lunch or dinner can't recall, on another day, perhaps Wednesday or Monday. So hold onto that phone number.
re: Melanie Wong
We live very close by and did a takeout order. Had the DDM, chili tripe/shank, spicy dumplings and some stuff off the 3 for 20 menu.
Overall, I liked it quite a bit and would go back to give it a try in person to experience the DDM in its original form. What I particularly like about this place is the balance in their application of spiciness. Enough to be interesting and complementary, but not so much as to obliterate.
I loved the chili strips dish and found it more to my liking than the similar variations at some of the local Taiwanese joints. Given that this was takeout, the DDM wasn't presented in a beautiful, vertical stack, but once it was assembled and re-tossed in the chili sauce (served on the side), it came together nicely. That said, I want to retry it in-house to compare.
The sauce is indeed not the more typical sesame or peanut base, but reading on Wikipedia, it appears that the addition of those ingredients is an adaptation to local tastes.
The chili dumplings were flat-ish boiled dumpings served with a sweeter chili sauce that paired nicely with them. The rest of the dishes were standard fare to please the non-spicy tolerant members of our family.
I'd go back to focus on the Sichuan stuff, as that's where they are strongest. It's quite a pleasant surprise to have something this good close by.