Monday, March 9, 2009

Good Ol' Plan B

One of the nice things about our stay in Phoenix is having time to spend with Chuck’s cousin Raina. First, she’s a fun person to be with. Second, she is also a chowhound partial to the same type of small, funky restaurants that we are. So, we made plans one Monday to meet for lunch. On our way to meet her, I asked Chuck if he was sure that this restaurant was open on Monday. When we got to Raina’s, she asked if we knew if this place was open on Monday. Only one way to find out. Off we went. When we pulled into the parking lot and found this place closed, it was apparent that Plan B was in order. Calling on Raina’s expertise and Chuck’s craving (again) for Chinese food, off we went to China Chili.

The restaurant’s logo of two crossed chili peppers gives a hint of what is to come. China Chili, a past recipient of the Phoenix New Times' Best Chinese Restaurant designation and 2007 winner of’s Best Chinese Restaurant, specialized in Sichuan (Szechwan), Cantonese, and Hong Kong cooking. Since we are fans of Sichuan food, we were gratified to see that of the eighteen lunch specials, nine carried the coveted “Hot and Spicy” label. In fact, the Soup of the Day (there is no option at lunch – if you don’t like it give it to your dining companion) was Hot and Sour.

We all ordered a different entrée. Raina’s was the Chicken Salad, which was not designated as spicy but had a dressing made with hot Chinese mustard. Chuck chose the Kung Pao Chicken, while I ordered the Kung Pao Fish. Fearing that we would leave hungry, we added an order of Sichuan Style String Beans. First, let me emphasize that the crossed chilies did tell the whole story. This was not Chinese food “dumbed” down for the American palate. When they say hot and spicy, they mean hot and spicy. In fact, each table has a separate dish of chili paste just in case the food is not spicy enough.

The soup arrived almost immediately and was a good but not perfect version. It was loaded with tofu, egg, and fungus in spicy and tart soy-infused broth. But I think there was an excess of thickener – more than likely corn starch – which gave an unnatural shiny appearance. That aside, all of our portions disappeared in short order.

Each order came with a disappointing egg roll. Thick wrapper and meager filling does not a good egg roll make.

Raina’s Chicken Salad was a huge portion of shredded lettuce and chicken strips with a dressing of hot mustard, cilantro, and sesame oil and topped with chopped peanuts. After asking for extra peanuts, Raina decided that she had received more than she really wanted, and these overwhelmed the taste of the salad. I found it unusual that this was served with a side of white rice.

Both Chuck and my dishes were essentially the same with the exception of the protein. Both contained chili peppers, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts and both were topped with peanuts.
The ample amount of chicken seemed to be a combination of breast and thigh meat and had that not unpleasant softness that a short marinade in corn starch gives many chicken dishes in Chinese restaurants.

My large strips of white fish were lightly battered and were perfectly cooked so that they remained moist and flaky.

The hit of the lunch was the string beans. I first had Chinese String Beans at the Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco (the one in Chinatown) and have made them at home. These were as good as I remember at the Hunan and frankly were better than mine. Cooked crisp and tossed with a sauce of garlic, ginger, soy, and chili and served with white rice, they were perfect.

I don’t often talk prices, but the bill for our four entrees and an iced tea each was only $32.00. This place is a bargain. The dinner menu lists most of the Chinese restaurant standards but China Chili is still serving its Chinese New Year’s menu which includes such non-standards as Dried Scallops and Fish Maw Soup.

China Chili was a very good Plan B (we still hope to get to Plan A before we leave) and gets 4.0 Addie rating. Too much corn starch in the soup and bad egg rolls are demerits. Saying spicy and meaning it earns the restaurant accolades.

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