Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A “Thriller” of a Meal

The Rice Bowl is a sprawling restaurant just south of our campground in Chico, CA, that incorporates Chinese cuisine and Japanese cuisine with a sushi bar.

The booths and room dividers are painted with bright red enamel, the ceilings are draped with white damask-like fabric,

the side walls showcase white oriental sculptures in lighted boxes,

and off to one side are small tatami rooms for those wishing to dine in a more private setting. So while sprawling, the restaurant gives diners a sense of intimacy.

The Rice Bowl is not the most upscale Chinese restaurant in Chico. That honor probably goes to Turandot North China Restaurant just a few more blocks down the road. But I knew from the sample menu I picked up in the Visitors’ Center, the Rice Bowl had a large number of hot and spicy dishes and had extremely reasonable prices.

How reasonable you might ask. So reasonable that both Chuck and my lunches came from the $5.95 list and included soup (choice of hot and sour, won ton, or the soup of the day), appetizer, and entrée with your choice of white or fried rice. There were also choices from $6.95 and $7.95 lists. The kitchen doesn’t push the envelope in its selection of Chinese dishes, but there were enough options to make both of us happy.

We started with good-sized bowls of hot and sour soup filled with tofu, carrot shreds, mushrooms, and tree ears in a savory broth that had just enough sour, but needed more hot. Adding pepper helped considerably, as did a generous dollop of the red chili sauce I appropriated from the servers’ station.

Each appetizer of the day was a chicken wing and fried wonton. (Yes, small. What do you expect for $5.95?) These came with a bright red sweet and sour dipping sauce. The wing was delicious with a very crisp skin covering moist and tender meat.

Chuck’s lunch entrée was the Szechuan beef with white rice. This was a large portion of very tender beef pieces that I would guess had been coated with cornstarch before being tossed in the wok. This is a technique called “velveting” that helps to both tenderize and “batter” the meat. The meat was certainly tender and there was a light coating under the sauce.

Now one of the ways I judge a Chinese restaurant is by the amount of “junk” vegetables served with the protein. I am tired of getting a plate that is 80% onion, green pepper, baby corn, zucchini, broccoli, etc. with only 20% meat or seafood. The only vegetable present in Chuck’s beef was some chopped scallion and hot pepper pods.

The red sauce tasted of garlic and ginger with faint undertones of vinegar and some sweet seasoning. I have searched all over the web looking for what would have given the sauce the red color, but am at a loss. I know that some Chinese recipes may use catsup, but I don’t think this was the case. I also know that there is a technique in Chinese cooking termed “red cooked,” but this normally involves using tea and five spice powder. And this didn’t have that anise flavor that comes from five spice powder. I guess I’ll never know. But I do know it was delicious.

My choice, Mongolian beef, is not, in fact, a Chinese dish. Rather it is a Chinese-American restaurant hybrid that uses Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients. But I enjoy it and that’s all that matters. Like Chuck’s beef, my thin slices of beef were absolutely tender without a speck of fat or gristle and stir fried with only a little onion and scallion. The sauce more than likely contained hoisin and/or dark soy (thicker and more intense than regular soy) sauce and was pleasantly spicy from the hot pepper pods.

While Chuck stuck with the white rice, I ordered the fried rice that contained bits of Chinese barbecued pork and egg. It was good, but I make better fried rice.

So are you wondering why this was a “Thriller” of a meal? The entire time we were eating the restaurant played a Best of Michael Jackson CD on the sound system. Talk about cultural melting pots. The Rice Bowl served us a very enjoyable meal (if you don’t count the music) that earned a 4.0 Addie rating.

Beat It.

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