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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Spicy Sichuan at Thailand Cafe

Hoping to kick a head cold with some spicy chow, capeanne asks what to order at Mary Chung. Don't go there for spicy, says Luther. Go two blocks east instead, "to the Sichuan restaurant inside Thailand Cafe." Luther does not jest: Sometime this summer, Thailand Cafe, a barely passable Thai place, acquired a new chef rumored to be connected with the hound-beloved Sichuan Gourmet.

There are Sichuan dishes now to be found on the paper menus (look under "chef's specials"), on a Chinese-language menu posted on the wall inside the restaurant, and on a whiteboard. It's a little confusing. If the place isn't too busy, the friendly owner will translate for you. Be sure to seek out:

• Saliva chicken: "It makes you salivate!" says fredid.
Ziran niurou or cumin beef, with lightly fried beef, peppercorns, scallions, cumin, and star anise.
• Chengdu dry hot chicken, which features fried chunks of chicken with dry, spicy peppers.
• Cold noodles with chile-sesame vinaigrette.
• Double-cooked pork belly with spicy capsicum. The thin slices of pork belly come with green onions, and damneddemand says it's "awesome" and "spicy but not overpowering."

And don't even think about ordering from the Thai side of the menu. Even the MIT students won't touch it. And that's saying something.

Thailand Cafe [Cambridge]
302 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
617-492-2494

Board Links: Mary Chung tonight - Help
Sichuan Cuisine at Thailand Cafe near MIT

Something Nice to Drink With Dinner

Home wine drinkers, listen up: bombaybeauty has found the wine store of your dreams. The brand-new Central Bottle has a smallish selection that's "thoughtfully original and priced right," with interesting bottles at affordable price points.

The shop also has a well-chosen selection of cheeses from around the world and "a young, enthusiastic cheesemonger happy to advise you," says bombaybeauty. Every Tuesday there is a $25 tasting, with three wines paired with three small amuse-bouches prepared by a guest chef.

"I'm no wine snob," says bombaybeauty. "Here I found myself paying less for better wine—now that's a move in the right direction."

Central Bottle [Central Square]
196 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston
617-225-0040

Board Link: Central Bottle: Fantastic Wine & Cheese Store Central Square

Overheard on the Boston Boards

"I was just reflecting on how the licorice-y, beefy broth makes you feel amazingly healthy, when a 2-watt bulb went off in my head: I recently saw that star anise is a key ingredient in Tamiflu."
-nsenada

"Be careful of the clearly-marked roast date on the beans sold at Crema—doesn 't appear there is a lot of turnover—and the dates vary WIDELY."
-rlh

"I made do with some things from Christina's, but when I went in the staff was kind of surly ... went back this morning and lo, they were surly again. I'm too old for surly."
-gimlis1mum

Sweet Treats for Tea-Lovers

Sweet Treats for Tea-Lovers

This week's mission: hard candies that don't suck. READ MORE

Overheard on the Los Angeles Boards

“The problem with any Milanese-style meat, whether it’s pork, veal, chicken or whatever is that you never get exactly the amount of breading you want.”
-lil mikey

“After the tour, we walked over to the covered patio for lunch which started with a tapas plate of cured meats, cheeses and olives.”

-pleasurepalate

“Thick, hand-made tortillas, super-fresh ingredients (open kitchen), spotless dining room, and a welcome alternative to a lot of the grubby/uncomfortable places farther east on Whittier Blvd.”
-cant talk…eating

Fried Shrimp Balls

The best fried shrimp in town, says Al Bondigas, is found at the Original Shrimp Place. There are other things on the menu, but what you want are the fried shrimp fritters, which are like “doughball soft tempura shrimp balls,” says Cinnabon. They’re a real treat, particularly with the nice homemade salsa with dried chiles and black pepper that comes on the side.

The place is in the downtown Foodcourt, mixed in with some other food stalls. The clientele can be a little rough around the edges, warns Al Bondigas.

Original Shrimp Place [Downtown]
327 S. Broadway, Los Angeles
213-687-8565

Board Link: The Original Shrimp Place- Best Fried Shrimp Around

Even Real Cooks Cheat Sometimes

Even Real Cooks Cheat Sometimes

This week's mission: frozen food with highfalutin notions. READ MORE

Straight Outta Auntie Em’s

What was once LA Bread has been taken over by new management and turned into the Village Bakery & Cafe. The fresh incarnation is much better than the old one, says scurvy. The secret is Barbara Monderine, the new owner. Barbara was one of the two founders of Auntie Em’s, which has long been one of the great purveyors of homey baked treats around town.

“The baked treats at Village are a wee bit more refined than what Barbara did at Auntie Em’s,” explains scurvy. There’s lemon and olive oil cake with almonds and rosemary, as well as possibly the best baguette in LA, says scurvy: “Crunchy and chewy and soft in all the right places.”

Some egg dishes come with a stunning cheesy leek and potato cake. “[It] is something you will think about later. You will wonder how long you have to wait until you can have more leek potato coke,” says scurvy.

There are excellent huge, fluffy, berry-filled pancakes, and great coffee, too.

Village Bakery & Cafe [Atwater Village]
3119 Los Feliz Boulevard, Los Angeles
323-662-8600

Auntie Em’s Kitchen [Eagle Rock]
4616 Eagle Rock Boulevard, Los Angeles
323-255-0800

Board Link: Village Bakery & Cafe - forget your LA Bread sadness and get over there for some real baking!

Westside Chinese Two-Fer!

Some recent discoveries to file under that rarest of the rare category: good Chinese west of the San Gabriel Valley.

Find #1: xiao long bao (juicy, soup-filled dumplings) and cats’ ears noodles in the Valley. The place goes under multiple names: some call it Tampa Garden, the exterior signage says Chinese Delight, the menus says Tampa Garden Chinese Delight, and the Chinese-language business card carries the parenthetical name Happy Dumpling.

The place may look like a fast food Chinese place, says jotfoodie, but it’s not. It’s a sit-down restaurant, with rough, homemade dumplings and noodles. The folks there are genuinely nice. The cats’ ears noodles are a little thicker and chewier than is optimal, think a few hounds, but really: homemade dumplings and noodles in the Valley. That’s seven kinds of awesome all in itself.

Find #2: Mandarin Kitchen, a semi-authentic Chinese restaurant in Westwood. It’s owned by the folks who used to run Hop Woo. This place is mostly Hong Kong style, and it’s decently good, says Chandvakl. One strong point: fish maw, an internal fish organ, is a serious rarity on the Westside.

Tampa Garden [San Fernando Valley–West]
8241 Tampa Avenue, Los Angeles
818-349-2221

Mandarin Kitchen [Westside–Inland]
1822 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles
310-441-9651

Board Links: Xiao Long Bao and Cats’ Ears Noodles In Reseda
Westsiders Rejoice! Fish Maw on Westwood Boulevard

New Finds: Wisconsin Cheese Guide

Yes, cheese from Wisconsin really is that good. So I was excited to read the new book The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin by CHOW.com’s own Supertaster columnist, Jim Norton, and his wife, photographer Becca Dilley.

The layout is really fun if you have an interest in the personalities behind the products: Each gorgeous picture of a particular cheese, like, say, the Cinnamon-rubbed butter jack from Bass Lake Cheese Factor, is paired with a mini-profile of the cheesemaker. In the case of the butter Jack, for instance, we learn that Bass Lake’s Scott Erickson looks really artsy, and once made gelatinous lutefisk (a Norwegian holiday dish of lye-cured codfish) for a living. It’s interesting to know just who goes into the old-fashioned business of making small-batch cheeses and how each cheesemaker got there, because who hasn’t fantasized about joining them?