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CHOWDOWN REPORT: Happy Golden Bowl in El Cerrito

Thanks to Hyperbowler's initiative, about 18 Hounds converged here for dinner this evening. Since there were so many of us, we were at 2 round tables, with each group making their own choices from a rather large menu.

I'm going to quickly kick off the report with a summary of the items we had, and invite my fellow Hounds to add to the list any dishes I might have failed to mention. And of course, comment on the cuisine.

1. Sesame Pancake: it's a kind of a misnomer since it's a bread not a pancake. Made from rice flour, I think. Nice spices. Great texture. could become habit-forming.

2. Sichuan Home Style Chicken: cold, appetizer

3. Sliced "bacon cut" pork with spicy garlic sauce

4. Rolled bean curd with cucumber: This was quite a surprise for me. A salad of tofu skin, rolled and cut into chunks with chunks of cucumber. Very refreshing. And a nice complement to the spicy dishes.

5. Sichuan style spicy wonton: small sensations of wonderful flavor.

6. Tan tan noodle

7. Hot and sour rice noodles

8. Pickled cabbage with thin slice noodle soup

9. Soft tofu and crab meat in claypot

10. Sichuan style ta smoked Duck

11. Chongqing Chili Pork Intestine

12. Spicy Hot Boiled Lamb: more like a soup.

13. Stir Fried String Bean with finely chopped pickles

14. Spicy Shoestring Potatoes Sauteed Country Style

15. Sichuan Sweet Sesame Rice Ball: kind of a soupy dessert special for the Chinese Lunar New Year. Glad I tried it once.

16. Sweet Red Bean Flatbread dessert: Kind of a Chinese slightly sweet quesadilla.

I invite my fellow Hounds to chime in with photos and descriptives. And the group at the other table can add their dishes to the list. But once again, we all were so very appreciative to hyperbowler for taking the initiative to organize this adventure.

ps- The most entertaining member of the crowd was 9-month old Hannah (chow handle tbd).

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  1. Pulling up to the restaurant, I was concerned that the awning now reads Ancient Szechuan. Peering inside, I recognized a couple familiar faces, and we were warmly welcomed by the staff. The large menus replete with hilarious typos no longer match the Happy Golden Bowl website, but they do not (yet?) have a new website).

    As usual, a lively bunch of diners, and thanks to Hyperbowler for organizing. The location was convenient for my Dad's first chowdown; I think he left as overstuffed as I did.

    I was seated at "the other table" where we overlapped only on a few dishes. Our waitress helpfully steered us to a couple of selections, and hinted that we should pass on one dish (unfortunately we failed to take the hint). So without further ado:

    "Appetizers"

    Sesame Pancake - thick, with a texture like focaccia, seasoned lightly with a little green onion, crisped on both sides in a pan, and crusted with sesame seeds on top. Arrived well into the meal, but worth waiting for. Great for sopping up sauces.

    Green Onion Pancake - we didn't order this, but enjoyed it nonetheless. Nice crispy parts; a touch oily.

    Sichuan Home Style Chicken (or mouth watering chicken) - a spicy sauce lurked below cold sliced chicken topped with chopped peanuts. Tasty, but since it arrived after several hot dishes, it's hard to know how one would perceive the heat level as a first course.

    Rolled Bean Curd with Cucumber (cold) - we sent back the first plate because it was so very, very salty, and its replacement had a nice balance of salt and vinegar, with classic Sichuan fragrance. A welcome palate cleanser when it arrived in the middle of the meal after many spicy dishes.

    Main Courses

    Wok-Charred Cabbage - I'm not sure this is on the menu, but it was delicious and had a wonderful fragrance (rarely said about cabbage, I suspect).

    Braised Duck with Hot Sauce - recommended by our waitress, some of the meat had almost dissolved into the savory sauce redolent with star anise. Definitely one of our favorites, despite the occasionally sharp bones. Nibbled carefully but with great relish.

    Boiled Fish Fillets with Flaming Chillies - similar to the boiled lamb dish at the other table, this is a classic preparation where the top surface of the broth is covered with wok-seared dry chillies and chilli oil. Below the surface you find white fish fillets (good texture; surely frozen fillets are used) and soybean sprouts. There was a proper amount of numbing Szechuan peppercorns in the broth.

    Pork Shoulder with Red Dates - one of our non-spicy choices, the meat was rich and amazingly tender (this could not be said of the dates, which could have used some further softening). They also make a spicy version, which might be a good match for this rich cut.

    Dry-Sauteed String Beans - perfect tender-crisp texture and lots of bits of garlic and preserved vegetables. A bit over-salted in my opinion.

    Hand-Shaved Noodles with Pork - these chewy noodles did not distinguish themselves, lacking a wok char and feeling underpowered in flavor and spicing. Those who ordered this dish on previous visits said it usually has been better.

    Steamed Lamb in Bamboo Baskets - it's not clear how this lamb was seasoned, although it seemed to have been dusted with roughly ground rice and the barest hint of curry. Too boring after all the high-powered dishes.

    Dessert

    Pancake Filled with Red Bean Paste (name unknown) - the crispy exterior and squishy interior make it both fun to eat and a bit messy. Not overly sweet.

    Photos: http://www.jeffersonscher.com/photos/...

    1. This was my first chowdown. I had a great time. I very much liked the lamb version of water boiled beef, lamb was tender, spicing was terrific. It was especially good to dip the sesame bread into the broth.

      I thought the seasoning of the chili pork intestines was great - salt & pepper style with lots of red chile and Sichuan pepper, the intestines were well cooked - deep fried but still tender on the inside, too funky for my tastes but the prep was super.

      The cucumber and dried tofu dish was also nice, garlic, sichuan pepper flavor, broth, too much salt in some bites but very good nonetheless.

      I liked the tea-smoked duck. The duck wasn't dried out and was pretty smoky. For some, that's a one-note dish but eating it with the hoisin sauce and buns was very satisfying.

      Green beans were done right, the skin was wrinkled but not burnt, the preserved vegetable was cut into tiny pieces and added to the flavor.

      We had some hand-cut noodles from the other table, texture was good, but no charring, so not as interesting as it might have been. The other table returned the left over chile intestines for some reason....

      I liked the potatoes. Really nice cut, cooked more than some versions I had, and less odd for my westernized palate for that but more of a mildly flavored dish, even though there were a few chiles, largely for color, - good for a counterpoint to the more heavily seasoned dishes.

      Dan Dan noodles were good, not overwhelmed by the sauce.

      We also had a cold dish of 'husband and wife' - tripe and thin sliced beef shank, nice, homey. I thought the cold chicken dish could have used a bit more salt, but it was otherwise also well prepared - chicken was not overcooked, sauce was flavorful with chiles, garlic, Sichuan pepper - not gritty.

      1. I too had an enjoyable evening. No bad dishes. FYI there were two tables - each table ordered separately. It's interesting to note that although the ordering was independent, the choices of the two tables were quite similar. As one of the later arrivals, I ended up at the second table, where the ordering was organized by Marlon (with input from all, and good help from the waitress). Jefferson was also at our table, which explains why his list of dishes is different from the original post.

        The first three dishes to arrive really set the tone for the meal, and were perhaps my favorites - the soup (which at our table was fish, not lamb), the wok-charred cabbage, and the stewed duck. Right off the bat we had full-on mouth numbing, some spice, richness from the duck stew and a little acid from the cabbage.

        By design a few of the dishes were not spicy, to provide contrast, but for all the dishes the spice level was very tolerable. The only thing that caught me by surprise with spice was having some of the remaining soup broth toward the end of the meal - by which time more of the spice from the peppers in the soup had leached into the broth.

        Service was excellent, and just by looking at the differences between our menu choices and the other table's, I see that it would be possible to have a number of dinners there that would be interesting without much repetition of menu choices. Thanks again to hyperbowler for organizing the meal.

        1. Thanks to Hyperbowler for organizing...
          I am somewhat of a "regular" at Golden Bowl. It has a very uneven history...one day it is amazing the next it is as if they had lost their chef and instead had one of the bus-boys cooking! This visit was very encouraging!!!

          I too was at "the other table". Let me add my comments to Jefferson's.

          Home chicken was very good with enough sichwan peeper to numb the palate as required. Still not as good as China Village (my gold standard).

          Charred cabbage is a favorite of simplicity and satisfaction. This was excellent...just burnt enough.

          Bean curd skin and cucumber. The first dish was inedible...but quickly replaced by a very acceptable version.

          The fish filet soup was the one with a spicy broth and mung bean sprouts. It was excellent and spicy. Note that I still prefer the one with clear noodles which is less spicy and a bit sour. Try them both!!!

          Duck with red dates...one of the best dishes!! great flavor of anise (a bit five spicyish).

          The lamb may have been more welcome as an early appetizer...as it is it arrivedso late it was eaten AFTER the dessert...too late!

          The other dishes were quite acceptable...and maybe even above average but not out of this world.

          Nice meal for $20 per person...wonderful waitress! Helpful, friendly and gave us great recommendations. Would definiotely recommend...

          4 Replies
          1. re: marlon

            Damn... I should have snagged some of that Duck with red dates!

            1. re: hyperbowler

              if you twist my arm, i'll go back again with you and tiptoe thru some more items on the menu, especially duck with red dates. and i know you wouldn't refuse anothe order of that "pancake".

              1. re: escargot3

                i'll join in on that, if i get enough lead time!

            2. re: marlon

              Marlon! You covered pretty much everything I had to say... However I think the red dates was with the pork shoulder, not the duck. The duck was braised with the hot sauce. Both these were really good, and I would find myself stealing bits from these two dishes as they went past on the lazy susan.
              Also would like to add that the sesame pancake was much nicer than ones I have had before as it was beautifully crispy on the outside. Apparently they are pan fried after being baked. I think the one on our table was a little extra singed, and I really enjoyed that!
              The handmade noodles was unusually doughy and flavorless. Maybe the noodles guy was away? Strangely this particular dish was whited out on my menu only and not the others'.
              It was also very good to see old faces from China Village working here.

            3. Great company and a great meal! I'm amazed that there weren't leftovers and that this was only $22/person... Here's my take on things--- can't wait to hear everyone else's impressions.

              1. Sesame Pancake: they forgot to put in the order, so we got this late in the meal. Fluffy and wonderful. Crisp all around, with an occasional thin and wonderful brittle piece.

              4. Rolled bean curd with cucumber: Excellent, refreshing, and subtly spiced. Best vegetable dish I've had at HGB.

              5. Sichuan style spicy wonton: Wrapper was cooked just right, but the meat was too firm. Good flavor. I'm not sure if this is the same dish as the red oil dumplings at Z&Y, but I prefer those.

              6. Tan tan noodle: Something struck me as odd when it was served, and looking back at my photo from a previous visit, it's the dab of chili garlic sauce on top. I liked the spicing and flavor overall, but it prefer more chili oil. Less sauce and sesame paste than at a previous visit. Noodles were too soft.

              7. Hot and sour rice noodles : I'm butchering the spelling, but this is listed as something like "pork pachyrhizus" on the "dim sum" section of the menu. This is an intestine-based dish with noodles in a dark red soup. Thinking this was a mistake for the "Chongqing Chili Pork Intestine," we sent this back. When we realized it was our mistake not his, I asked the server to please charge us for it, but he told us he already took it off the bill.

              8. Pickled cabbage with thin slice noodle soup : didn't do much for me. Not enough pickled flavor to balance the gaminess of the lamb.

              9. Soft tofu and crab meat in claypot : custardy and delicious. Salt is the major taste here. Wish I had more to say about it. Not something I would have ordered on my own, so this was the top find of the dinner.

              10. Sichuan style tea smoked Duck : I think this is the 3rd time I've eaten tea smoked duck and for different reasons, I've never liked this dish. At HGB, the smoke flavor was too intense, I couldn't taste the meat. On the plus side, I lucked into getting juicy pieces of meat. The fat was completely rendered out from my pieces.

              11. Chongqing Chili Pork Intestine : I couldn't think of a more appropriate word than what others described it as-- funky. Then again, it's intestine. The spicing was very good. The chilies were sufficiently charred to imbue their spice to the intestine, something I've not found to be the case at some Sichuan places with their chicken.

              12. Spicy Hot Boiled Lamb: This was the "water boiled" lamb. One of, if not my favorite, dish(es). Intense broth though not as spicy as I was expecting.

              13. Stir Fried String Bean with finely chopped pickles : I liked the texture of the string beans, but this was way oversalted.

              14. Spicy Shoestring Potatoes Sauteed Country Style : very interesting preparation of potatoes. I was expecting crispy potatoes, but these were cooked firm which made them a less heavy side dish. A little bit of acidity and not greasy.

              16. Sweet Red Bean Flatbread dessert: I'm convinced--- red bean paste is ideally served in a thin layer like this, and with a crunch. I could snack on these all day.

              We also had the "spicy beef combo" off the "cold" section of the menu. I've had this elsewhere listed as "couple's delight." Some of the more tender tendon and tripe (I think) that I've eaten. I would have liked a more aggressive and spicier sauce, but this level of spicing is traditional as per a description by Fuchsia Dunlop in Land of Plenty. The complementary pickled package was great as usual... next time, I'll ask if I can get a takeout order for snacking during the week.

              From "the table of 7 persons" I snagged two dishes. The portion of knife-shaved noodles I ate was undercooked and thicker than any piece I had at HGB one time before. That said, it's a bit unfair to judge this dish based on one forkful given the technique involved. I also had the Steamed Lamb in Bamboo Baskets. I agree with Jefferson's point about it being boring after lots of spicy food. Lucky for me, I tried this after having cleared my palate with desserts! Very soft texture, and a bit mealy with the ground rice, but I enjoyed it. I thought I was hallucinating the curry flavor, but it sounds like Jefferson picked up on this too.

              This was my fourth time at HGB, but the first time getting such a variety of dishes. Sharing with people at a Chowdown is such a great way to eat. I definitely agree with Tom that the diversity of the menu would enable many completely different meals to be eaten with little overlap.

              Eating so many dishes at the same time, some holes in HGB's preparations came through, but overall, this was a fantastic meal. They food is not as aggressively spiced as at Spices III, in particular regarding the use of Sichuan peppercorns, but the preparations are also more balanced and less one note. It seemed like a bunch of people were regulars at China Village, so I'd be interested to hear how the kitchen fared in comparison given the large group.