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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
“Pao Cai”: Complimentary Sichuan pickled cabbage, nice crunch, could be saltier
1. Sesame Pancake: “Zhi Ma Da Bing” is indeed a type of flatbread cooked on top of the stove in a pan. Eric and I had fun trying to figure out the rolling method that could produce the scrolls of layers that add so much to the texture of this bread. Wonderful golden brown crust enriched with some oil, great fragrance from the toasty sesame seeds, and more green onions inside than some other versions. This came very late in our meal, and also long after the other table received its order. I’d suggest ordering this in advance so that it can be prepped ahead of time and baked off at meal time. This is not made with rice flour, but rather, I suspect uses some proportion of highly bleached, soft (low-gluten) wheat flour to achieve the tender, almost cake-like interior texture.
2. Sichuan Home Style Chicken: “Kou Shui Ji”, a tasty version, but not distinguished. Served at same time as the fu qi fei pian, the seasonings were too similar. Typically the chicken dish will be more delicate in spicing with a lift of acidity. Nice knife work on the cucumbers underneath that soaked up the spicy juices.
2.1. Spicy combo: “Fu Qi Fei Pian” aka husband and wife lunch slices, though this version had no lung in it. Made here with beef shank (not tendon) and honeycomb tripe, the proportions had much more shank than tripe. The shank, swirled with chewy connective tissue, was just a little too firm even cut as thinly as it was. Complex and deep seasoning with a nice hit of hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorn). I almost always order this dish when I try a Sichuan place for the first time because it comes out fast and let’s me calibrate the kitchen’s spice level so that I can then ask the service staff to adjust accordingly.
3. Sliced "bacon cut" pork with spicy garlic sauce: “Suan Ni Bai Rou” came out later than the appetizers ordered in our first round. The slices of fresh boiled bacon were warm, better than the usual cold or room temperature. But this plus the delay did make me wonder if this standard is not ordered often and thus prepped for us from scratch. Served with rind on (some restaurants slice it off and serve only the meat striated with fat layers), at least it was quite soft and the meat, tender. Good job on the garlic “mud” with a sweeter, cooked garlic flavor and not so raw and pungent, as well as a mild bit of chile heat for a different spicing profile.
4. Rolled bean curd with cucumber: Very nice job with this dish. Seasoned with hua jiao in the absence of hot chilis, one could really appreciate their own citrusy fragrance and flavor with a slight bit of numbing. Often this dish has a touch of acidity for a little lift. In this case, the hua jiao served that same purpose. The wet crunch was a good foil for the many spicy dishes.
5. Sichuan style spicy wonton: “Hong You Chao Shou” to answer “hyperbowler” are “folded hands” style wrapped wontons and different from spicy shui jiao dumplings. However, these were so clunky, they could easily be confused. Instead of thin, fluttery wrappers, these were thick-ish and too stiff, and the porky filling lacked delicacy. Tasty though sauced with garlic-infused red chile oil. And I sort of regretted ordering these instead of the other spicy dumplings, as shui jiao are one of the traditional dishes to celebrate New Year’s, representing gold ingots.
6. Tan tan noodle: “Dan Dan Mian” was different than my lunch a few months ago. Softer noodles, grittier and harder ground meat, topped with a dab of garlic, less sesame paste, and more chile heat. Wonder if there’s a different cook at lunch vs. dinner.
7. Hot and sour rice noodles: Sorry I waved off this dish due to a misunderstanding.
8. Pickled cabbage with thin sliced lamb noodle soup: Agree that the pickled cabbage was too fresh and not sour enough to counter balance the richness of the lamb and liven up the broth and glass noodles. But I bet adding a couple drops of white vinegar, this could be delicious as leftovers.
9. Soft tofu and crab meat in claypot: Not served in claypot nor in the aluminum foil liner as illustrated in the menu. I’d had this the first time I ate at Golden Bowl some years ago. It disappeared from the menu, and I’m happy that it’s back again. The earlier version had crab roe in it. This did not seem to have that extra briny flavor nor the telltale orange sheen to the broth. At the same time, the price seems lower too. Not much to look at, the broken up curds of soft tofu with crab stirred in pick up the crustacean’s natural sweetness and has a slurpable, soupy texture like porridge. Best ladled into a rice bowl and eating with a spoon.
10. Sichuan style tea smoked Duck: “Zhang Cha Ya” suffered an unusually bad hack job. Plus my hunk of the breast was parched and dry.
11. Chongqing Chili Pork Intestine: Dry-fried nicely to yield crispy golden crust and chewy/tender insides, seasoned to a T, but too funky. This was an opportunity to reiterate again that those behind the recent whoop-de-do over pig rectum posing as fried calamari are morons. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/886852
12. Spicy Hot Boiled Lamb: “Shui Zhu Yang Rou Pian” was not as spicy hot nor loaded with hua jiao as it should be, but that made it easy for me to have a second helping. Usually I can’t handle that much heat. This had the requisite Chinese celery too often missing from other versions, as well as some Napa cabbage lurking under the viscous red oil-stained broth. The lamb slices were not quite as smooth in texture, not as lavishly velveted with cornstarch. Glad the sesame bread arrived before this dish was done . . . a wedge soaked in the juices of water-boiled preps is one of my favorite things at the Sichuan table.
13. Stir Fried String Bean with finely chopped pickles: “Gan Bian Si Ji Dou” was very good, I agree with Eric and am glad that our waiter suggested we get this dish. The tender texture and bright color from oil-blanching was textbook, though I would like just a bit of wok-searing to add a smoky note. Loaded with fried garlic and ya cai (preserved mustard green) for a big savory, salty mouthful.
14. Spicy Shoestring Potatoes Sauteed Country Style: “Qiang Tu Dou Si” is shredded just a little thicker here, and cooked a little more, yielding a still firm texture with the extra width. Colorful with shreds of sweet pepper and some dried red chile pods and a touch of tartness, nice job.
15. Sichuan Sweet Sesame Rice Ball: “Jiu Niang Tang Yuan” is a regular item on the menu. It’s also one of the foods enjoyed by non-Cantonese Chinese as part of the New Year celebration. This was a rather sad version, much too watery and not much character to the syrup. Lily’s House in Lafayette makes a much, much better rendition.
16. Sweet Red Bean Flatbread dessert: Crispy to the point of brittleness and seemed to be made with rice flour, however, not glutinous rice for the chewier texture I was expecting.
Many thanks to escargot3 for being our table’s scribe and to hyperbowler for bringing us together. A special shout-out to Jefferson for keeping me plied with the good stuff from his table. Lastly, very nice to meet some ‘hounds live and in person for the first time, see you soon!
* * * * Sichuan Chowdown Series * * * *
Happy Golden Bowl aka Ancient Szechuan, El Cerrito (February 2013)
Trend, Mountain View (November 2008
Z & Y, San Francisco (September 2008)
Chili Garden, Milpitas (July 2008)
Little Sichuan, San Mateo (July 2008)
Great Szechuan, Richmond (June 2008)
Hunan Restaurant, Fresno (Chef Liu rediscovered, May 2008)
China Village, Albany (November 2007)
South Legend, Milpitas (July 2007)
Zone 88, San Francisco (December 2006)
Little Sichuan Express, Fremont (September 2005)
FeldmanFest @ China Village, Albany (Chef Liu’s last night, September 2004)
We’ve Been Ma-La’d @ Spices! II, San Francisco (January 2004)
NYE China Village Chowdown (January 2004)
China Village, Albany (July 2003
#1 Chowdown of 2003 – China Village (January 2003)
House of Yu Rong in San Jose (May 2002
I'd like to thank Hyperbowler for organizing this great feast. I don't have much to add, but the revelation was how much I enjoyed having so many dishes to sample during one meal eventhough I don't think any one particular dish stoodout. Chowdowns must happen more often even if I have organize 'em myself. Maybe one of the many Korean joints along Telegraph?
That's the spirit, Matt, go for it. The address to send a message to the East Bay Chowdown group is email@example.com . Be sure to send it from your email address that is registered with the list, if you have multiple ones, or it will bounce.
Off the top of my head, Korean chowdowns in the East Bay included Sura, Ohgane, Kang Tong Degi, Pyung Chang Tofu House, Sahn Maru, Seoul House ... that said, it's been a few years since and it would be great to revisit some of these. There'd also been an Ethiopian series that hopefully will resume one day.
Anyone who wants to help organize meet-ups and/or be notified of the next one can sign up here.
re: Melanie Wong
Each of the yahoo lists is privately organized separate and apart from Chowhound.com. Anyone is welcome to set up another system, organize chowdowns and invite others to join them.
Personally, my own experience with FB events is that one-third or more of invitees and groups members never receive the info on their timelines or on their calendar of events. Yes, I do still use it but it always requires additional emailing to reach everyone.
As I mentioned, anyone is welcome to set up another system and recruit the community to join them. The existing yahoo groups have been around for nearly seven years and yes, the medium has fallen behind the times but I don't relish transitioning 900 members. The main problem that comes up is that folks fail to keep their email address up to date. When the groups first started, one had to use a yahoo email address. But that is not the case any more, and I suggest changing to an email address that you're more likely to check.
I'm not the owner of any of the chowdown lists, you should contact the list owners for more help.
Went last night. Overall it was very good. Some things were better than others. The place has promise but some dishes need improvement. I hope they are successful. Service was excellent.
Here is what we ate:
Sesame flatbread: Was slightly sweet which I found cloying. Liked it, but did not like the sweetness. Good but not as good as the China Village version.
Ma Po Tofu: Overall very good with lots of satisfying ma la spice.
Numbing beef tendon: Tendon was thicker cut than other versions. Was good.
Cumin lamb: Just ok. Not cuminy enough and did not have the nice dry texture of the better versions.
Sautéed pea shoots: Just ok. Pea shoots not sautéed enough and it was lacking in the wok-char flavor that makes the dish satisfying for me.
Sautéed spicy crab: Excellent. Was the highlight of the meal. The crab was impeccably fresh. The seasoning was spicy and complex and I detected an interesting note which I thought was nutmeg. Addicting.