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May 3, 2013 11:08 PM

Sichuan Chowdown Report at Chef Ma, San Jose (with PICS)

CASH ONLY. Seven of us tried out Chef Ma for dinner tonite, it's in the Sogo Mall in the far back left. Bathrooms behind the spot around the corner. In the mall is Sogo Bakery & Wonderful Chinese Gourmet, plus QQQ Tea shop.

They have A/C in the mall which was needed since it was 96 degrees in SJ when we were there.

FREE peanuts given - they were nice, some oil & salt.

1. A2 Sliced beef - sliced beef, beef honey stomach strips in chili sauce $5.99
2. A4 sliced pork garlic soy sauce vinegar $4.99
3. A7 shredded potato w/ chili $3.5
4. A-2 Sichuan special potstickers 6 in an order $4.95 - we got 2 orders
5. B2 Mapo tofu $6.95
6. B-3 Sichuan style noodle w/ spicy ground pork $6.5
7. B-4 fresh made cold noodle w/ chicken $6.95
8. C20 Cumin pork ribs $7.95
9. D3 Dry sauteed string beans $6.95
10. C26 Fern & shred pork $9.95
11. C12 sauteed sliced fish $8.95
12. A5 Spicy Sichuan rice jello $4
13. A-5 pumpkin cake $2 ea x 3

FREE cold oranges given cut into slices

My favorites were A4 sliced pork garlic soy sauce vinegar; potstickers; mapo tofu; Sichuan style noodle w/ spicy ground pork & dry sauteed string beans.

Our total with tax/tip $113.85/7 = $16.26pp - So Cheap! CASH ONLY.

Thanks Melanie for organizing & others for coming along.

Pics here:

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Thanks much for keeping track of our mega-order and all the changes when we learned that some items were sold out. Here's my photo about mid-way through (before we finished eating everything, whew!).

    Too tired to add more detail now, will comment later.

    * * * * Sichuan Chowdown Series * * * *

    Chef Ma, San Jose (May 2013)

    Fey Restaurant, Menlo Park (May 2013)

    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)

    1. My notes:

      A2: The sliced beef was only mildly spicy, a comment I could make on almost every dish. The beef stomach was a nice contrast to the plain sliced beef.

      A4: The sliced pork was all right, but didn't do much for me. Perhaps I was looking for a bit more bite to it.

      A7: The shredded potato with chili didn't have much chili to it, but that was fine. Instead the freshness of the lightly sauteed bell peppers and perfectly cooked potatoes came through.

      A-2: I didn't really find much to appreciate in the potstickers. They differed from the usual by being just a bit spicy in the meat and came with a dipping sauce that also added some spicy and a lot of salt.

      B2: The mapo tofu redeemed the spicy side of things. Creamy tofu, nice numbing hot sauce.

      B-3: the dan dan mian wasn't not my favorite preparation of this dish. Thankfully, it wasn't smothered in peanut sauce like I've seen at some other places, but it was a bit acidic.

      B-4: this was a nicely refreshing change when it came, since the noodles and chicken contrasted with the spicy/hot other dishes.

      C20: while the menu would make you think that this was a super spicy dish, the battered pork chop chunks weren't really. You had to dig into the onions and bell peppers that came with the dish to hit the chili peppers that were hiding.

      D3: Good job on the beans, although we weren't sure what the dark flecks were -- couldn't have been the garlic.

      C26: I don't think we ever figured out what was really meant by ferns. There weren't fiddleheads in the dish. More like slightly thick pine needles with a bit of crispness and chew to them.

      C12: we had planned to get a spicy fish dish, but this non-spicy one turned out to be fine. Plenty of properly cooked fish chunks and veggies.

      A5: Nothing special in my book. The "jello" (agar) is just a conveyance for the sauce which was similar to the sliced beef and sliced pork preparations.

      A-5: we were mostly too full by the time these came out. The menu says $2 each, but an order seems to be 2 of them. I managed to talk the waiter into giving us 3 cakes (bing) for $6, but as it turns out, we could have gone with just 2 cakes. A nice crisp outside with a subtle pumpkin flavor gives way to a chewy inside with a red bean filling.

      My thanks as well to Melanie for organizing the trip and to Arlene for organizing the dishes ordered and taking the pictures. It was a good time and a welcome respite from the heat.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Peter Yee

        I had the twice-cooked pork with fern last night and like you guys, I have no idea what the fern really is. It remains a mystery. Paging K K...

      2. Thanks for the report, wish I could have joined you.

        Could participant(s) possibly comment further on:

        - More detailed description of mapo tofu (ingredients etc.)? It's a dish I know intimately and cook at home (from a dozen variation recipes from Chengdu - note for home cooks, this is one of the areas where Fuchsia Dunlop's very fashionable Sichuan cookbook is weak compared to books published the US much earlier). Basic recipe has tofu, do ban jian hot bean paste, a leek-type veg., and hua jiao seasoning, but many cooks add fermented black beans or other options.

        - B3 I take it was DDM. Just curious why no twice-cooked pork ordered. Maybe among dishes unavailable that night? (Various authorities have long identified those two and/or MPTF as signature dishes of Sichuan, and they certainly test the cook's preferences in my experience, so I usually order them when trying a new Sichuanese kitchen.)

        - Chinese name or rough phoneticiz'n for B4? At first mention I thought it might be one of various related dishes with chichen, cited here --

        -- until Peter described it as non-spicy.

        3 Replies
        1. re: eatzalot

          Here's my post from my first visit to Chef Ma, which includes links to photos of the menu at that time. There are two parts to the menu, and the numbering is tricky. The hyphen (-) or lack of one makes a difference.

          The mapo doufu was made with ground pork rather than beef, which I prefer over the vegetarian versions that abound.

          B-3 is dan dan mian.

          Twice-cooked pork is on the menu in a couple iterations. Yes it's true that this and mapo doufu are signatures of Sichuan (although twice-cooked pork may have originated elsewhere). But I tend not to order either of these on first or subsequent outings. They are such popular dishes, along with fish-flavored eggplant and dan dan noodles, that they're often dumbed down and/or Americanized. I prefer to get a sense of a Sichuan kitchen by ordering other dishes such as fuqi fei pian or chongqing la zi ji, that are usually only found on Sichuan menus. Oddly, Chef Ma does not made chonqing la zi ji --- I asked for it.

          B-4 is indeed ji si liang mian, hand torn. Marked with one * to indicate hot and spicy, like the other dishes, this was only warmish in spice. The overall spice level was down from my first time.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Thanks for the further detail Melanie, and the heads-up re dashes in menu item codes.

            Still wondering about further seasonings in the ma po tofu -- black beans, mushrooms, etc?

            In my experience of that dish around the S. Bay, either it was a recognizably Sichuanese rendition (consistent with all recipes I've seen and with characteristic flavors and aroma), or it was completely different (e.g. pea and carrot bits, possibly from a freezer bag, and no citrus scent from hua jiao, at Bamboo Garden in MV). When I was new to each restaurant, I would inquire if the cook was by any chance from Sichuan province. Answer has correlated to the dish's basic authenticity WITHOUT exception.

            Notably, this revealed Sichuanese cooks at certain restaurants that did not bill themselves Sichuanese, and also lack of Sichuanese hand in one kitchen that did advertise itself as Sichuanese. (And Bamboo Garden and several
            others have followed the same rule, though the unauthentic MPTF was no surprise in those cases since I already knew the kitchens were non-Sichuanese.)

            So my take, within the particular region where I've avidly tested it, perhaps 12 restaurants total, is that kitchens with Sichuanese management, and only those, have produced recognizably authentic MPTF and those were all vividly flavored and balanced. The others were all over the map, practically anything with tofu and some hot spice. Consequently, I don't associate it with Americanization but with non-Sichuanese cooks.

            1. re: eatzalot

              Spices version is authentic, if not especially noteworthy, and their chefs aren't from Sichuan. But I agree, lots of ridiculous dishes claiming to be mapo dofu.

        2. Thanks for documenting, HHC! I'm just a little late here in responding, but this way time has filtered memories down to the standouts for me.

          The sliced beef and pork were both tasty but neither was particularly exciting. A nice part of a well-rounded meal.

          The shredded potato was excellent--memorably simple yet flavorful, with expert knifework and cooking time to achieve a really wonderful texture to the gently cooked potato shreds and peppers. Will order this every time I return.

          Mapo tofu--good or great, this dish is much easier to find around the bay area so it wasn't as exciting as it could have been, but it was a good rendition and like Peter said, the only one I remember as notably mapo spicy.

          Sichuan noodle/dan dan mien were great--I have trouble finding good renditions of this and I liked it quite a bit.

          I loved the cumin pork ribs--nicely fried and the cumin-anchored flavor palette was complexly tasty. Wish we'd had less food so I could appreciate their richness more.

          The fern & shred pork dish was lovely--it had several interesting dried forest products in it and is definitely one of those dishes you only find in the most authentic Chinese restaurants. Nice range of textures, gentle flavors, and a light touch to it that was a nice contrast to the richer or more flavorful dishes on the table.

          1 Reply
          1. re: SteveG

            Thanks for phoning home, SteveG! I'm kinda in the same boat as far as recall.

            C12 sauteed sliced fish $8.95 - Not what we expected, turned out to be more like the Shanghai fish in wine lees

            C20 Cumin pork ribs $7.95 - Still haven't made up my mind about this dish. Battered and deep-fried seemed so out of character with the general lightness and non-oily cooking style here. But I did like the flavor.

            C26 Fern & shred pork $9.95 - A new one for me, enjoyed the nuanced complexity in this a great deal, and a good change of pace from the red oil dishes.

            A7 shredded potato w/ chili $3.5 - Top dish in my estimation. I've said many times that this simple dish shows a kitchen's true skills in knife work and using a wok. This chef passed with flying colors.

            D3 Dry sauteed string beans $6.95 - Excellent rendition, well-seasoned, nice char and just the right bite.

            Chef Ma continues to impress me, and when you add in the very low prices, it rises even further in my estimation. Via FB, I saw that Robin and Bert celebrated his birthday here Wednesday (with the caption that he was a cheap date). It's gratifying when one can introduce friends to a place that they enjoy enough to return to for a birthday dinner.

            Chef Ma in San Jose for Chengdu, Sichuan Cooking

          2. I don't know if it's a permanent thing, but I tried ordering the A7 shredded potato appetizer last night and the server (same friendly guy who is always there) told me they only had it in a full-size $6 portion. Odd. Maybe someone with better Mandarin skills can ask.