Friday evening I was cruising north on 880 with my sights on Newark’s Little Sichuan. But alas, traffic slowed down to a crawl in south Fremont. Instead, I exited at Auto Mall Pkwy to return to Shao Mountain, where we had an outstanding chowdown in February. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/890830
Located across the road from Costco, this section of the mall features a number of Chinese restaurants, including Asian Pearl. At 8pm the parking lot was so full, I had to stalk some people walking back to their car to snag a space. And Shao Mountain had more than 20 people milling around in front waiting for tables, mostly young families and Chinese ex-pat hipsters. None of the other eating spots along this strip had any lines. I asked the black-clad host how long for a table for one. He motioned to the four uncleared tables outside and said I could sit immediately outdoors. On a warmer than typical evening next to a space heater, this was quite comfortable. I did have to put up with other patrons’ rear ends hanging over my table and worrying if my tea pot was going crash on the pavement at the next jostle.
Don’t remember who told me this, but someone once advised me that I could order Sichuan dishes at Hunan restaurants with some confidence, saying the chefs would know how to make the classic preparations of their neighboring region. So I tested this theory by starting my mapo doufu November dish of the month trials here. I ordered two dishes, plus a bowl of steamed rice:
Fried tea-flavored shrimp, $12.99 – Medium-large shrimp in the shell, split down the back, dry sauteed with a blizzard of dry tea leaves (and sticks). I couldn’t tell if these were Hunan’s famous Shaoshan (Shao Mountain) tea or not. The shrimp shells were paper-thin and crisp, easy to bite and chew if you’re inclined to eat the whole thing. The firm shrimp were cooked enough that they separated from the shell, coming off easily with a tug. The tea added a subtle fragrance and flavor, alongside bits of garlic, scallions, and sweet red pepper.
Mapo tofu, $8.99 – On the illustrated menu, this dish is sort of tucked away as an afterthought with just one line and no photo, making me wonder how much love it would get from the kitchen. When the waiter plopped my order down, the citrusy scent of hua jiao wafting from the dish told me I needn’t worry. Precisely cut cubes of tofu looked firm but turned out to be wonderfully creamy in texture. Medium hot spice level, the taste of the dried chiles was more toward the wet heat of Hunan than the smoky spice of Sichuan. Whole pieces of fermented brown bean rather than black beans, and the less salty base chili-bean paste tasted like the kitchen’s own concoction rather than a jarred Pixian-made condiment. Gently cooked ground pork was separate and not clumped together and seemed almost juicy and soft rather than gritty and crisp. While the scent of hua jiao signaled its presence, the impact on the palate was restrained with only minor numbing effect. Chopped scallions took the place of leeks. The seasoning included plenty of fresh garlic and ginger, yet these elements were very harmonious and integrated into the overall flavor of the dish. A little different flavor than would be found at a Sichuan restaurant, but equally addictive.
This was my second time at Shao Mountain. It’s worthy of a detour to try the Hunan cooking and dishes not found elsewhere in the area.
More photos from the graphic design firm –