No, this isn’t a critique of the 1966 movie of the same name staring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. All will be made clear toward the end of this blog.
We find ourselves in Castle Hills, a city that is surrounded by the northwest side of San Antonio. Our mission? Lunch at Sichuan Cuisine, a restaurant that received the San Antonio Express News Critics' Choice Award 2011 and 2012 and San Antonio Magazine’s "Best of the City" Award also in 2011 and 2012. Of Sichuan Cuisine, San Antonio Magazine said: “We love getting lost in the exotic menu, then gorging visually and orally when the veggie-spiked platters of heat arrive. The subtle tea-smoked duck and the aggressive boiled fish with spicy sauce showcase the kitchen’s attention to balanced textures and flavors. And they feature all your American Chinese favorites, too.”
Yes, you can find such staples as General Tso’s Chicken, Kung Pao Chicken, Mongolian Beef, Moo-shu Pork, and Salt and Pepper Shrimp. But the menu also includes, under the heading of “Sichuan Adventures,” dishes that I can only describe as being too “exotic” for my taste. Dishes like Pork Intestine with Jalapeno, Pork Blood and Beef Tripe with Spicy Sauce, Crispy Pork Intestine with Dried Pepper, Sliced Beef and Tendon in Spicy Sauce, and Sliced Pig Ear in Hot Chile Oil. I may be adventurous, but I don’t do “parts.”
The food is described as being true to the tastes of Chengdu, China—the capital of Sichuan province. “Most of Chengdu's local food specialties started out as snacks or Xiaochi (small eats). They originated in little stands or stalls located on sides of the road. Being located in Sichuan Province, Chengdu's local specialties are famous for their delicious spiciness. Sichuan Province is one of the four famous local cuisines in China. There is a Chinese saying ‘All good foods are found in Chengdu.’ Chengdu's foods have become famous throughout China and their renown has recently been spreading into Western countries” (chinaodysseytours.com).
We were there because the on-line menu (which like the printed menu was written in both Chinese and English as was our computer-generated bill) promised a large number of dim sum or small plate items. Well, that menu was somewhat out-of-date so we didn’t even have the option of considering老四川肥肠粉 or Hot Rice Noodle with Intestine, 四川凉粉 or Sichuan Cold Rice Jelly, and 豆浆 or Soybean Milk. Instead, we chose four more familiar plates.
First was an order of pot stickers (锅贴). Nothing exotic here. In fact, pot stickers are found on virtually every Chinese restaurant menu. The plate contained eight dumplings with tender wrappers that had the required crispy bottoms. But, at least to me, the filling was a bit on the bland side. I am used to pronounced garlic and ginger components in the filling and didn’t detect much here.
Second was a bowl of 四川凉面 or Sichuan Cold Noodles described by Edmund Tijerina on mysanantonio.com as “A cold Sichuan noodle dish (that)…woke up the taste buds in anticipation of what's coming later. It was a mixture of soba noodles sturdy enough to stand up to the garlicky, spicy sauce, and made for a snack that's good enough for a meal…” The sauce was placed first in the bowl and the chewy noodles added next. It is brought to the table that way and our server instructed us to stir the sauce up from the bottom. This was a good bowl of noodles, but the best of the meal was yet to come.
Our third dish was the四川担担面 or Dan Dan Noodles which is one of the most famous and popular dishes in Sichuan cuisine. “The name refers to a type of carrying pole (dan dan) that was used by walking street vendors who sold the dish to passers-by. The pole was carried over the shoulder, with two baskets containing noodles and sauce attached at either end. The noodles cost almost nothing, and gradually local people came to call them Dandan noodles. Literally, the name translates as ‘peddler's noodles’" (wikipedia.org).
In this case, the sauce and meat garnish were placed atop the noodles, and we were again advised us to stir both into the noodles.
“…The meat in the noodles acts as a garnish: minced beef or pork is stir-fried in the pungent mix of…spices and oils just until it's crisp on the outside but still fairly tender in the center. The little nuggets of meat soak up a portion of the chili and sesame oil, essentially turning into bacon bits…” (seriouseats.com).
But it was this final dish, the 钟水饺 or Chengdu Style Dumplings that was the most successful. Zhong's Dumplings are the representative Sichuan dumplings, which was created during the later years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The name ‘Zhong Dumplings’ comes from its founder and inventor Zhong Shaobai. These special dumplings are made of pork and vegetables wrapped in dough. The dumplings are boiled and are served with a sauce made of, sugar, garlic, sesame seeds, salt, and soy sauce” (henhaochina.com).
This was a bowl of ten dumplings swimming in a very spicy sauce that contained a goodly amount of chili oil. The meat filling was a bit smoother than you normally find in a pot sticker and the meat to noodle ratio was weighted toward the noodle. The sauce was so good that I added a spoonful of it to my portion of dan dan noodles to provide the latter with even more heat.
So we’ve reached the end of our meal and receive our bill. And what comes with the bill at a Chinese restaurant? Fortune cookies, of course. And mine reads “Do not give a man a fish, but teach him how to fish” which is Chinese for “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” And proving that my mind works in bizarre ways, I am immediately reminded of the recent election where one vice presidential candidate (I won’t mention any names, but his initials are P.R.) restated this famous quote as follows: “Teach a man how to fish, he can feed himself for a life. Don’t feed fish.”
And then my mind takes another bizarre turn. You know that every fortune cookie fortune can be ended with the words “between the sheets” or “in bed.” Does this work with “don’t feed fish?” So I offer for your consideration the following from fortunecookiemessage.com:
“Whenever possible, keep it simple. Don’t feed fish.”
“Your dearest wish will come true. Don’t feed fish.”
“You will receive some high prize or award. Don’t feed fish.”
“You will live long and enjoy life. Don’t feed fish.”
“An admirer is concealing his/her affection for you. Don’t feed fish.”
“Life does not get better by chance. It gets better by change. Don’t feed fish.”
Kind of works, doesn’t it?
Anyway, we found much better Chinese food here in San Antonio that we could have imagined and give our meal a solid 4.0 Addies.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.