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.