Thomas Nash's Profile
Here's the mostly great, and some unfortunate and surprising, experiences we had this week in Singapore. In chronological order.
Arrived 6AM direct from SFO, where the Laksa in the SQ lounge was the best I've had in the Bay Area, with 6 hr layover in Seoul, so decided to hit the breakfast buffet at Edge in the Pan Pacific. Huge, expansive buffet with a bit of everything, but not quite everything since I was dreaming of more laksa and they serve that only at lunch. Items of uneven quality from all over Asia, but many Asians were at the American breakfast counter. Guess it is exotic.
Afternoon headed out to the Old Airport Rd Food Centre for some crab and rojak. The rojak at Toa Payou Rojak was marvelous. The old man was assembling the orders, helped by his son.
The crab at Mattar Rd Seafood BBQ was ghastly. I really don't know what happened as I expected this to be a high point as Rick Bayless, a Chef hero, had raved about it. Maybe I shouldn't have taken the Makensutra recommendation to have the white pepper crab. Maybe it was because I asked for a larger crab for 2 and got one a bit over a kilo. Maybe I am just spoiled by the juicy tasty Dungeness crabs we get at home. We got a she crab with massive amounts of roe, which was so overcooked as to be hard and bitter. The crab was dry and uninteresting. Sauce mild and bland. The cook seemed to be the owner. Can anyone explain what happened?
Things got better when we found the Nam Sing Hokkien Prawn Me Stall which was just closing. So we were given a take out order from a freshly made batch. It was wonderful. So 2 for 3 at Old Airport Rd were spectacular.
Next day we went to the Sunday 'buffet' dim sum at Jade in the Fullerton, which I had booked in December. Absolutely the best dim sum, including Hong Kong, TPE, SF, and LA. One of the best meals in years. Every item was refined most were creative upgrades from standard or new creations. Example, truffled small fried taro puffs. High point and best dish in years came at the end, and was fantastic even though we were quite full, was the stewed grilled lamb loin. Shredded soft braised lamb, marvelous flavor, with a charred spicy crust in a little square cake, slice for presentation with pickled veggies. Wow!
For dinner headed to Maxwell St for chicken rice. Arrived at TianTian at 6, just as they sold their last order, not to us, despite almost a display of tears for me. Discovered Ay Tai 2 stalls down just before a huge line formed. Lady in the line said she slightly preferred TT for the rice, but like us she had come to Maxwell St with her heart set on chicken rice and Ay Tai was almost as good. For us it was incredibly good and we now appreciate why this dish is such a big deal in Singapore and surroundings.
Next day, excellent beef murtabak at Zam Zam. Never have seen this so light and tasty. Earlier stumbled on a Din Tai Fong, with incredible XLBs. No where else comes close. Lots of excellent soup. I see y'all have more DTFs than TPE. Lucky you. Don't know why we can't get a branch in the Bay Area.
Then headed out to crazy Sentosa for dinner at Sam Leong's Forest. We had experienced his creative modern take at Jade a few years ago when that was his spot. I still think he is one of the most interesting chefs around, much like Wolfgang Puck in his prime. We had foie gras with duck breast in a crispy tofu skin cup with interesting unfamiliar flavors. Shrimp stuffed with smoked oyster with was I sauce, a fine dish. I over ordered heavy meat dishes, but both were excellent, Wagyu beef cheeks, pressed duck with yam. Impressive, maybe not as exciting as he was at Jade. Not sure why this has to be tucked away in a remote corner of Sentosa.
All I all a great food town youse guys have here. Headed for CCU and when we come back through SIN will have along enough layover to get some of the East Coast Rd Laksa.
Thanks to klyeoh and others on this board who really made this visit work for us.
I've posted some photos, mainly dim sum, on twitter, @tomnash
Saw them on Taraval, at least a dozen ladies stuffing dumplings, yesterday.
Looks great ... seems like they have fresh XLBs to cook at home. Has anyone had experience with those? I was impressed with the ones at their restaurant across the street yesterday, actually had soup in them (unusual these days).
What's the experience in general with cooking their dumplings and pancakes at home?
Can't hide my bad memory from Melanie's searches. I was hungry for S&G at the time, before overdosing in Charleston, and I liked the place, Old Skool. Guess I need to go back and retry?
Mason is the main restaurant I was thinking of. A small fried chicken and waffles take out is a branch called Little Skillet on Rich St.
Queens is highly recommended for an excellent gumbo (as well as Po Boys, Abita beer, ...
Farmer Brown does good soul food (cat fish!) and a fine gumbo also.
Have been very silent on shrimp and grits despite it being one of my favorite dishes. Problems are two fold.
First, I had not had a decent S&G in the Bay Area and nothing reported here seemed up to Charleston or Louisiana standards. Certainly not the paltry under flavored portion of little shrimp on cheesy (both senses of the word) grits at the otherwise often stellar Rickybobby.
Now thanks to Mariacarmen, we went back to Front Porch, which had fallen off our list - maybe because we could never get in and maybe because our first try there years ago was not that compelling.
Second, as others have noted this is not a well defined dish. It can be very variable both in concept and in quality of execution. Last summer I tried maybe half a dozen versions in Charleston and maybe I can barely remember one or two as somewhat outstanding. Best were probably at Husk and Hominy Grill, two of Charleston's best kitchens. These are mild and well balanced and probably should be considered prototypical.
The version I really remember, probably on my top ten all time list of dishes, is the version at Galatoire's in Baton Rouge. Shortly after the hurricane closed down everything including Galatoire's in New Orleans, they opened a place in an upscale fancy mall on the south side of Baton Rouge. Probably this was to serve the many New Orleans refugees in Baton Rouge at the time. As a special one day I found shrimp and grits on the menu -- subsequently I think it has become a permanent fixture in Baton Rouge, but never at the original Galatoire's in NOLA.
The Galatoire's version is completely different from what you get in Charleston. It is a smoky version, somewhat of a barbecue or gumbo sauce, with huge (fresh) Gulf shrimp on creamy grits. Incredible dish.
So, Front Porch has done a very creative variation on S&G, not unlike Galatoire's. Actually quite comparable, but maybe not at that stratospheric level. The shrimp are smaller, and have been through a freezer on the way from the gulf. Mine were cooked just right, BTW. And the grits are nice and creamy. The smoky sauce reminds of a barbecue shrimp or a smoky gumbo, and this sense is augmented by the generous pile of andouille slices, a touch I have seen no where else.
Otherwise, the fried okra was OK, maybe too thick a breading. The deviled eggs, spicy and good. The pecan pie first class. The fried chicken was also very good.
Guess we will head back there.
I missed Melanie's question first time around... this reminds me to answer that there was a ⅛" (smoky) fat cap on the other wise very moist meat.
Comparing with Louis Mueller's is about the highest complement one could give. Smokehouse is almost at that stratospheric level, but not quite. Yet, I am sure it would be considered a first class place for its brisket in Texas.
Lime Tree is good, but I think it is more Malaysian rather than Indonesian. Calls itself "South-East Asian". Anyone else have info on this?
Had a wonderful Lers Ros dinner tonight. Everything was excellent:
Koh Moo Yang - smoky slices of pork shoulder with an interesting dip I had not previously tasted.
Som Tom Poo green papaya salad with raw crab. One of my favorite dishes that I have only seen here and at Jitlada in LA. Superb.
Kang Phed Yang Duck Red Curry. Excellent, obviously home made curry paste, not from the usual commercial jar.
Hoy Lai Pad Prik Pao Incredible clams in red chili paste sauce with basil.
Pad Kee Mow wide fried noodles with prawns. Fettucine like noodles, simple and perfectly prepared. As good as any Thai noodles I have seen.
Lers Ros was spic and span tonight, about two thirds full at 7 PM.
This is a real treasure for San Francisco. We need to keep it vibrant and busy. It was discovered and publicized by CHers and CHers need to patronize and talk about it again now in a time of need after its recent difficulties.
Interesting question. I forgot to comment that I was wondering if we ever got the General Zhang Fei Beef. Maybe I missed it, but I don't think I see it in any pictures. Think it was ordered but did it not come for some reason?
This was the Chowdown I was waiting for. Thanks, hyperbowler for organizing it. Something like 18 or 20 dishes were available and most of us ate too much, but this banquet was really a way to see what this CH favored restaurant could do.
Some years ago, based on CH raves, the two of us checked out China Village on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and were very disappointed. I don’t know what happened, probably just a selection of dishes that were not among the best (maybe the ma po tofu was one). So, after the fire we went back as a twosome again and, as I posted recently, were much more favorably impressed by several dishes (twice cooked pork was one, bon bon chi another) and not so happy with the “ma po” or “ma la” crab. But after last night’s amazing display, I became a believer. China Village is really the best Sichuan, at least in the Bay Area.
As mariacarman noted there were no true failures, but to start on a positive note, there were a few incredible triumphs:
I am really glad there was no crab and that we had what the owner called “Sichuan style lobster”. This was an amazingly sophisticated dish and really perfect. Of course, there are no Maine lobsters or Dungeness crabs walking around the rivers and lakes of Sichuan. So this is a modern take at a time when such beasties can be flown in. That doesn’t make it any less Sichuan. (I am a little confused about the description “Lobster with chilies” in hyperbowler’s list as there is an item with this name on the menu, but the owner seemed to steer us to a differently named dish as I noted earlier. Not sure if they are 2 dishes or not — so be careful in ordering this.)
I was also totally impressed by the Country-Style Spicy Pork Spareribs. For the first time I understood what people mean by a “citrusy” flavor from Sichuan pepper corns. Maybe it was a marinade they used, but these dry cooked ribs had a new (for me) and complex flavor. This is what I expect from real Sichuan cooking.
Other dishes new to me and excellent:
Five Spice Rolled Bean Curd Sheets, a wonderful addition to a set of cold starter dishes.
Dong po duck. Boy, ducks were meant for this long braising dish. Even better than the usual pork and lighter in many ways as most of the fat gets cooked out. Loved it.
West-Style 1000 Chili Pepper Fish Fillet in Chicken Broth. Lovely and light despite the covering of chiles, dramatically removed by the waiter.
The following were superb and the best rendition I have ever seen:
Szechuan-Style Spicy Boiled Beef (water boiled beef). There are several other restaurants around here doing this, but I think this may have been slightly better than the best. Lots of a dry roasted chili, sichuan pepper corn, and what else?, on top. Superb.
Mouth-Watering Spicy Organic Chicken (Bone-In). The owner insisted on this, while I insisted on ordering the bon bon chicken. He was right. This is perfectly prepared version, with highest quality chicken, and a deep and interesting sauce.
Following were competitive with the best I have had, maybe better, maybe just as good, all excellent:
Spicy Charred Stir-Fried Cabbage
Wow, what a list of winners! But there were some negatives:
The ma po tofu with beef is very good, but not up to what this place should be doing. A conversation with the owner after the meal was quite informative. He clearly knows that the original version of this dish is not vegetarian (as the menu offers), uses browned beef, and far more spicy and complex. But he noted that in other parts of China, beef is not considered a quality ingredient so pork is expected in the MPTF. I think that is a correct interpretation. Worse is that he confirms the sense we have had that pressure from those thinking that tofu equates to vegetarian encouraged many restaurants in the US, including CV, to put this on the vegetable section and make it without meat. I think he confirmed that without meat it really should be called ma la tofu. And I think that is what they call the crab version and the fish version, both of which have little to do with MPTF except that they included tofu and a somewhat spicy, oily red sauce. I really wish CV would demonstrate what an authentic, firry hot, MPTF is all about as I know this kitchen can do it. Hope someone is reading this…
And now a brief rant about bon bon chi. CV makes the best and most authentic version around these parts, but it is not as good as they should be doing, which may be why the owner steered us away from it. This is one of my favorite classic Sichuan dishes. “bon bon” or ”bang bang” refers to the sound made by the side of a cleaver banging the chicken breast so it can be shredded by hand. Here it is sliced in juliennes from a rather dry breast pre-prepared and grabbed from the fridge. Although the saucing is pretty close to correct, could be more fiery hot, it should be made from a juicy (high quality) chicken breast just pulled out of the broth and then bang banged and shredded. The other place making an excellent variant is Spices II, where the chicken comes on the bone in chopped up pieces. So the meat is better than at CV, but this is supposed to be a boneless shredded dish.
Others can speak to the Sesame bread as apparently the weather didn’t help in its creation last night.
Steamed fish with ginger/onion is a Cantonese dish and this kitchen was not at its best in implementing it.
Hand made seafood noodles. Noodles were excellent and quite perfect in texture, but maybe this was just too much after everything else, but I didn’t get the point of the seafood and saucing.
All in all one of the best Chinese banquets I have been at in a long time. Great food, great conversation, interesting people. And we discovered that CV is only a 20 minute walk from the El Ceritto Plaza BART stop — so we avoided the rainy day Bridge traffic. Thanks to hyperbowler for the ride back to the City.
Well, of course I tried that, but got very confusing and inaccurate answers, mainly because of limited English. The chef would certainly be able to answer questions if he is around when you are ordering. I discovered that duck was on the special menu and asked about it -- then gambled and ordered it despite a confusing response. The purpose of my post was to help others based on our experience of several dishes.
Getting translations from wait staff of all-Chinese menus has long been a problem. Some of us used to carry around "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" by James McCawley, first published in the 1980s, but nowadays, the Pleco app makes life much easier.
I am sure there have been previous discussions of this on CH. It is the language barrier and also a cultural barrier: the sense that non-Chinese would not appreciate the dishes on the special menus or blackboards. At Little Sichuan, I think it is just language as they are very pleased when you order off the special menu.
If you want to discuss this general problem, maybe you might start a new thread.
Here are some more photos: the Salted Egg Yolk Corn, ma po tofu, crispy beef, and the check with the different characters for the chicken hot pot (note that the crispy beef is listed in English as "Chick" but with Chinese characters for beef).
Went out to Little Sichuan in San Mateo last week to check out the ma po tofu and confirm whether it belongs in the better or best category, and, perhaps more important, to try some more of the dishes on the untranslated Chinese menu.
My only ability to translate the menu depends on the OCR (optical character reader) add-on to the iOS app Pleco. On a previous visit when we had the excellent 纸包扒鸭 (paper wrapped duck), I was able to get copies of the two pages of this menu for further work translating with Pleco at home. Since my translations skills or so weak, I hope some Chinese speakers can help out. Photos of the two pages are attached.
We now have sampled the following:
纸包扒鸭 (paper wrapped duck), actually wrapped in aluminum foil and slowly braised in a peppery fragrant brown sauce. This is not a Sichuan dish, probably (??) comes from the Shanghai area, but I cannot say for sure. Totally excellent dish. Four of us devoured it. $24.95 and worth every penny. That dish brought us back for more.
红烧羊 (red cooked lamb). I recognized these characters as a typical Shanghai dish, but the waitress on the first visit insisted it was Sichuan. It was a Shanghai braise in a hot pot. The lamb was chopped up bones and all. If you like slow cooked lamb, which I don’t, I think you would find this an excellent dish.
正宗干锅鸡 (黄毛鸡）I had trouble translating this as I interpreted the third character as “dry” and the fourth as “pan” though “pot is also possible. The first two are “genuine” or “authentic”. The parenthesis indicates that this is a “yellow feather [heritage] chicken”. So, I was expecting a dry cooked heritage chicken. What came was a Chungking style fiery hot, incredibly ma la, hot pot braise with an inch or so of sauce and delicious chicken pieces. This was one of the most intensely ma la dishes I have ever had. If you want to see what real Sichuan spicy means, try this! It was marvelous. When the check came, the characters for this dish were different from the menu and there was an English translation, both of which indicated this was a Chongking hot pot heritage chicken. So, someone, please help, did I mistranslate the menu characters or has the chef changed the dish (the price was $0.95 higher, as the waitress had told us).
金沙玉米 (Jinsha corn) I had no clue what Jinsha (a place name) indicated. I should have picked up on the item just above it which is salted egg yolk crab, a favorite dish at Hakka restaurant, which also does an interesting salted egg yolk pumpkin strips. So this turned out to be an amazing dish, salted egg yolk sweet corn kernels. I thought it was revelatory and very creative. My two dinner companions were not so thrilled with it. You really need a large table of diners to include this, but it is really unusual and worth the experience.
香辣脆(牛肉）(fragrant, spicy, crispy beef) Interesting crispy beef with spices and fried chiles, some of which looked ferociously red, but were quite edible. As there is a classic Sichuan dish like this that includes fried orange or tangerine peel, I am now wondering whether what I thought were chiles were actually citrus peel, though I was not conscious of a citrus note.
There are several more dishes I am interested in trying, but that’s all so far.
As for the ma po tofu, I will keep it in my better (not best) category. It was excellent, but with the Chongking chicken hot pot demonstrating what real Sichuan ma la and spicy levels are all about, it could not compete and seemed tame by comparison. Probably this was an unfair test. It was a classic combination with significant Sichuan pepper corns, plenty of almost browned pork (not beef), leeks or green onions, and no black beans that I could discern.
Both times we ordered off the special menu, the chef came over to ask how we liked it. He makes his presence felt in the dining room and has brought new vigor to this kitchen.
Thanks for pointing at the WSJ article. I really don’t understand what any disagreement you perceive is about except that you seem to disdain Fuchsia Dunlop’s “journalist's” approach to getting information about Sichuan food and to my referring to Chen Ma Po Tofu as the “descendant restaurant” without a) using the plural in my original post since there are multiple restaurants in this chain and b) that verification of the provenance is difficult (as I acknowledged subsequently after you pointed out that this may be so very important to the gist of the information we are trying to discuss on this thread).
Quoting from the WSJ article, which extensively quotes Fuchsia Dunlop:
"The owners of Chen Mapo Dofu, a chain of restaurants in contemporary Chengdu, maintain that their shops are directly descended from the late 19th-century original. It's a claim that's impossible to verify, though Ms. Dunlop thinks it may have merit because when the Chinese Communists nationalized privately owned restaurants in the 1950s, they usually left the businesses' family names intact."
As I noted before, I believe the conventional wisdom in Chengdu is that this group of restaurants is the descendant. The other restaurants cited do not make such claims, though they serve versions that given the high standards of Chengdu, I am sure, are also very fine.
As to the “authenticity” of the MPTF at Chen’s, another quote from the article, referring to “Chinese-American Zuo Ziying, who was born in Chengdu and who conducts tours in southwest China for Lotus Culinary Travel”:
The Wikipedia article on ma po tofu references many of the 1970s era cookbooks you have told us about. The article comes with a typical Wikipedia warning:
“This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page.
Perhaps you should help to fix up this article, if you haven’t already tried to do so. The article, like the WSJ, notes correctly there are several MPTF restaurants in Chengdu, which I believe include the several from the Chen chain, but does not cite any others that claim the same provenance. Maybe you can.
By the way, there is a very interesting comment at the end of the Wikipedia article:
"Vegetarian can easily be made without meat at all (and simply just tofu) while not toning down the spices; this version is technically referred to as Mala doufu although this name is not always well-known."
Interesting to me because the Chinese speaking western lady who was eating the vegetarian version at China Village said exactly this that the vegetarian version is called "ma la tofu" rather than "ma po tofu". I can live with that distinction.
It would be very helpful if you would tell us about the other Chengdu restaurants that you have been to in the last decade or two that serve ma po tofu and claim lineage along with links to their websites and images of their ma po tofu. I am not aware of any others and would love to hear about them. Nobody I talked to in Chengdu knew of others than the one I referred to.
Frankly, I had been hesitating to post more to this thread because I didn't went to re-fan the flames of authenticity discussions as they pertain to restaurants in Chengdu and cookbooks and scholarship vs. journalism. I went ahead because I thought some would find the material useful.
The full provenance of the restaurant Chen Ma Po Tofu in Chengdu would take an incredibly proficient and dedicated historian to discern. In Chengdu of the present post 2000 era, I believe the ma po tofu it offers represents what local people believe is now the best example of the original. It does come close to what Fuchsia Dunlop also offers based on recent (1990s) research and experience from the recognized cooking school for the area’s cuisine. The recipes are also similar but, perhaps, not identical to what was brought to the English speaking world during shortly and after the cultural revolution, a period when Chinese gastronomic information was dispersed and hard to obtain, in the cookbooks referenced earlier in this thread, some of which I also have.
Having said all that in order to avoid encouraging further debate on the “authenticity” question, I thought it would be interesting to point this thread at the website of this restaurant in Chengdu as it contains some interesting information both about the dish and its history, again, as presently understood in Chengdu.
The site is http://www.chenmapo.com . There is a tab for an Engish version, but that is very thin. Best is to suffer through the Google translations and to look at the pictures.
Most interesting to me is the attached picture of the dish as it is served in the restaurant. It is as I remember it - though the tofu was more regular and neatly ordered as presented in the red saucing under the pile of (what the website confirms is) beef. The dark color and crispy texture of the beef is exactly what I remember. I believe the meat had a bit of black beans and definitely a fragrant 5-spice? component.
Here is the Google translation of their description:
Chen Mapo Tofu is a world-class dishes. Han Qing years with Pioneer (1862) Chengdu Hail bridge (Chen Xingsheng Fanpu). Chef Chen Chunfu's wife. Chen's face raw hemp marks, diners before it cooked tofu dubbed "Chen Mapo Tofu."
Mapo Tofu feature is that the choice of materials and the production of the "character Scriptures" that is; hemp, spicy, hot, fragrant, crisp, tender, fresh, live character. Ma: refers to the tofu pot when you sprinkle pepper at the end, pepper is Maxim.Tingle pure, refreshing Hanyuan tribute pepper. Spicy: is optional Longtansi Dahongpao pepper oil produced beans do Youla incense. Hot: refers to the pot and serve immediately, oil and more insulation, easy cooling too hot and delicious, hot sweat. Incense: refers to making tofu tofu served plaster smell taste, cold soak water rust tofu flavor. And colored condiments original odor. Only the smell of an appetite. Crisp: beef flavorful, golden color, crisp red no plate. Entrance cakes, dip teeth on the technology. Tender: refers Tun fried tofu well, the color white as jade, flute angle distinct, a twist on the broken, so diners eat with a spoon. Fresh: All vegetables raw, Jujie fresh, fresh and green, red and white color all taste fresh, live: Chen Mapo Szechuan store a stunt. Serve tofu, inch-long garlic, green Zhan Lan, oil Ze very brilliant, as if the ground had just picked chopped vivid, but the entrance Jujie cooked.
Note the emphasis on "crisp" in regard to the beef.
There is more about the history on the site as the restaurant tells it.
They also sell seasoning mixes for MPTF and other dishes. I brought home a sample from the restaurant. The seasoning for MPTF is incredibly intense and dark in color. I attempted to use it and was forced to doctor up the dish to get it closer to what I remembered. Probably each packet is meant for a very large quantity, but I have difficulty locating or translating instructions on the package as they are too small for the Pleco OCR to make out. I have never seen these seasoning mixes in US Asian food stores.
... well it appears under "Sides" as apparently a vegetarian version ("Mapo Organic Tofu (v) 素麻婆豆腐 8 brown bean sauce, sichuan peppercorn oil") for $8 at M.Y China at the Graton Casino...
yes... K&L is a wine store...a dyslexic slip on my part. Meant Z&Y 655 Jackson St San Francisco CA
hmmm. checking the menu at M.Y. China: 黑松露小籠包 ! Black truffle XLBs. 5 for $18, which is close to what Din Tai Fung charges in Taipei. Wonder if they are anywhere close to as good.
Melanie, if you can get through the traffic...
The posts by mdg and eatzalot remind me about Chef Zhao Bistro in Mountain View. I thought highly of the place after an exploratory visit maybe a year ago. I am sure I would have sampled the ma po tofu as a test of the place, but I don't remember the dish in any detail. But my overall very positive recollection of Chef Zhao's implies that the ma po tofu was probably in my "Better" category. I hope to confirm sometime this month.
My favorite breakfast place is The Pork Store at 1451 Haight. Classic All-American breakfast at the highest quality and not unreasonably expensive. You can look around the Haight while there. I would walk one way and take a bus or taxi the other. I think it is about an hour's walk. (Google says 53 min.) More downhill coming back downtown.
Three of us went a couple of weeks ago. Many of the dishes have been been described well by others so I will focus on overall impressions. Very enjoyable place with prices that made the food taste even better than it was, which was very good.
(Food just tastes better when it is priced reasonably. Have you ever noticed that 75 cent oysters in New Orleans taste better than $1 oysters in SF which taste better than $2 oysters in SF and presumably the $3 versions, which I have never tried.)
Anyway, the oysters started the meal well at the Palace and each course was interesting and nicely presented. There was a heavy focus on meat and in the end probably too much food for everyone. So we never even tried the dessert.
I recall the pork was stellar as was the upgraded Wagyu beef, which one of us sprang for and which was divine and worth the extra. It was better than the regular beef.
Wine glasses were in short supply for the BYO, but that and the interesting furniture did not detract from the overall warmth and quality of this place.
I think we will be back.
We will have to trek to Fremont to try that... Suppose we could precede or follow it with a Chaplee Kabob at De Afghanan Kabob House.
I am very fussy about ma po tofu and will probably bore many people on this subject once again. The reason I care about ma po tofu is that the version we searched out a decade ago on an obscure street in Chengdu at the descendent restaurant of Mother Chen’s, was one of the two or three most memorable dishes of my life — up there with the Truffle Soup at Paul Bocuse’s little place in Collonge au Mont d’Or. A dish like that is what makes you a foodie, more important it helps to explain the mystery of life.
As Fuchsia Dunlop says in her Land of Plenty, “It’s one of the most famous Sichuan dishes and epitomizes Sichuan’s culinary culture, with its fiery peasant cooking … Many unrecognizable imitations are served in Chinese restaurants worldwide [and I might add, the Bay Area is no exception], but [Fuchsia’s recipe] is the real thing, as taught at the Sichuan provincial cooking school and served in the Chengdu restaurants named after Old Mother Chen.”
I can imagine that some deviant version of ma po tofu could be better than the authentic, but I haven’t found one so far. At Chengdu I was in awe at the balance of textures and flavors between the tofu, the black beans, and the slightly crispy meat (I believe it was beef as Fuchsia says is typical) with a hint of cinnamon (in five spice?) that caught my attention. And (extremely) fiery hot in a way that only accentuated the many flavors playing off each other.
Texture and flavor plays are critical parts of Chinese cooking, as others more expert than I could explain better. So, I blanch, so to speak, when I see vegetarian versions labeled as ma po tofu. Without the ground meat (at least pork), you miss an essential aspect of the texture. I guess many of even the better Chinese places seem to be looking to fill out their “vegetarian” list, but then it is not a complete ma po tofu experience. Putting shrimp or crab or chicken, or God only knows what else in, is also creating a totally different thing. End of rant.
Most of the Sichuan and Northern Chinese places around here have versions of ma po tofu that are infinitely better than the US shopping mall horrors that are so labelled, even if some have crab or are vegetarian. Having said that, here is my short list of the best and better ones:
Spices II — I still think theirs is the closest to the real deal around here.
Little Sichuan - we didn’t have it on a recent visit, but I recall from a year ago that they did a decent version. Will have to go back before the month is out.
Better than the malls
Beijing Restaurant (not their best dish - not sure if I ever had ma po tofu in Beijing city, but I am sure some of the superb Sichuan restaurants there get it right.)
hmmm ... beef is what is in the authentic version. See my post coming up soon. Makes me want to try Hakkasan.
Actually, I wanted to call this thread, "The Three Best Bay Area Sichuan Restaurants", but decided that was not humble enough.
Catching up on my CH reports after a delay due to the press of other matters means my memory may play some tricks. One positive result is that I can compare the 3 best (IMHO) Sichuan restaurants in the area quite closely as circumstances brought us to them all in the space of a week.
Little Sichuan in San Mateo has always been very high on my list of the regions Chinese restaurants. It has gotten some bad press here in the last few months (bad service, bathrooms, etc.). So, since we hadn’t been there in a year, it seemed time to go back.
It was as great as ever. A small delay at the beginning to get service attention because they were a bit overloaded was the only service issue. After that the service was extremely helpful and friendly. The chef even came out to check on us toward the end (I guess to see who had his special duck?). I believe I am missing at least one item from our dinner as there were 4 of us, but here is what I recall:
Bon bon chicken — as always a very nice rendition, not heavy on the sesame, shredded chicken from all parts of the bird.
Sichuan Dry Sauteed Shrimp - this was a new pick for us. (I have not seen this dish anywhere else.) The preparation is like the [Chung King] Chicken (Wings) in piles of dried chiles and ma la. Absolutely fantastic. Perfectly cooked thinly battered shrimp in this dry cook technique was beautifully balanced in texture and flavor. Would be on the ten best dishes of the year list if I kept one.
Spicy Cucumber - we always have the Sichuan cucumber at all these restaurants as it lightens the meal and is relatively healthy. This may not be the best version at the 3 restaurants. A very hot (spicy) blended garlic flavored sauce, very good but lacking in the complexity that you find at the other places we went to this week (and Beijing Restaurant).
Dan dan noodle - a fine dan dan, sesame a significant component of a reasonably complex sauce.
“Paper” wrapped duck 纸包扒鸭 an excellent duck slow cooked with spices in aluminum foil. Very special dish. This is on the Chinese language only menu — 2 pages of interesting stuff to translate with Pleco. The charming waitress insisted this was a Sichuan dish, but I don’t think so — more Shanghai, I think. Melanie tells me that the new chef here is not from Sichuan — though when he cooks Sichuan he does so with authenticity. … as certified by a letter on the wall above the cash register from the City of Chengdu that this is an authentic representative of their cuisine.
Bottom line is that this restaurant, which I believe is somehow owned or related to the Chinese Consulate or government, continues to be one of the most authentic restaurants in the area. I was told the bathrooms were clean this time.
China Village is a favorite on this list. Several years ago we went there on a Sunday afternoon and were rather unimpressed. After all the raves since the reopening, we decided to give it another shot as we were passing by Albany. I am glad we did.
Bon Bon Chicken — a beautiful sauce, complex and just right, smooth and interesting. The chicken breast was not shredded but julienned and if not for the sauce would have been a tad dry. Best I have had away from Chengdu.
Cucumber with spicy garlic sauce - probably the best version of this favorite dish of ours. Well balanced with a depth of flavors in the sauce, which like most places was not blended (as it was at Little Sichuan).
Twice cooked pork - absolutely the best version of this classic that I have had in a very long time. Well executed, with pork from the belly (e.g. bacon), of course, since it is authentic. Just perfect.
“Ma po tofu” crab - well, this seems to be an attempt to take the idea of Singapore Chili Crab and mo-po it. It is a reasonably fine crab in an interesting ma-po like sauce with tofu scattered around, not much ma-la, no black beans. Sometimes, I dug out pieces of crab and ate them together with the tofu and then I almost started to appreciate the idea. Anyway, this ain’t no ma po tofu and it ain’t no Chili Crab. Another table had ma po tofu straight (from the vegetarian menu) and it had no meat, which means (IMH and very biased O) it isn’t ma po tofu. I guess you can ask for it with pork. I will post some comments on this subject later on the active dish of the month ma po tofu thread.
Putting aside my fussing about ma po tofu, China Village deserves its reputation and belongs on our top 3 Sichuan restaurant lists. We will go back. Anyone planning a Chowdown there, please include the SF city mailing list so I will know to come!
Spices II at 6th and Clement in SF is a long time favorite. We happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to complete the trifecta late this week. We chose somewhat atypically as we were looking for a lighter than usual supper. It was a very nice balanced meal, but since we didn’t have their star dishes (ma po tofu - best in the area-, cumin lamb, their non-standard but superb bon bon chicken - with bones, dry braised bitter melon, beef or fish filet in flaming oil, Chinese bacon steamed with spicy flour, dry braised eel strips, etc., etc.) it may not have been quite up to the meals at the other two restaurants this week.
Numbing spicy cucumber - an excellent version, definitely better than Little Sichuan, but maybe not quite as perfect as China Village, but darn close.
Tofu skin stuffed with mushrooms - this is a new dish which the waitress suggested when I was looking for another lighter dish. Very interesting and pleasant dish. Looks sort of like a rolled beef pancake, but with tofu skin instead of a pancake and mushrooms instead of beef. Rounded out this lighter meal perfectly.
Three Spiced Chicken wings - with bones (and not pandering to the bone challenged folks), this is a very fine version, but this week it was a teenie bit less memorable than usual.
Wonton in red oil - When I ordered this I guess I was thinking of the slightly sesame version at Shanghai Dumpling King which I really love. This version was very good but didn’t totally sing for me.
After a few weeks of lousy meals all over the area, I was getting discouraged, but going back to these 3 fine Sichuan places made me remember how lucky we are around here.
Stopped by Smokehouse 10 on Thursday since we were in Martinez. Had a plate of pulled pork and brisket. The pulled pork was very good, but not extraordinary. But the brisket was so good that we took ¾ lb home and it is still incredible. Very moist (e.g. plenty of fat), flavorful, just the right amount of smoke. The presentation, perfectly sliced brisket shows the competition pedigree of the chef. There are a variety of sauces. Somehow the one that ended in our takeout bag, selected by the chef, was the perfect match. Not too spicy, though I enjoyed the spicy sauces at the restaurant.
This is, as Michelin would say, a place worth the detour. But not on weekends when it is closed.
They were out of ribs, so I can't report on them, but I know the next time we pass this way, I will focus on the brisket.
Pecan pie, though still cold from the fridge, was fine.
Secret is to ask for the the wet or fatty end. They will understand what you mean and then this is one of the two best briskets around. The other being Smokehouse 10 in Martinez, which is probably the best this side of Taylor, TX.