When I worked in San Bruno in the late 80s, the international restaurants and markets along San Mateo Avenue were a haven from Sizzler, TGIF, and the white bread nature at that time of the surrounding area. My favorite lunch spot was Szechwan Restaurant, a dark, dingy, cold and drafty little place with Sichuan specialties where the foreign-born clientele spoke Mandarin, all seeming so exotic and different from my Cantonese-American upbringing. Id theorized that the owners didnt heat the place to protect the customers from bursting into flames from the fiery food. The cooking and flavors here, whether authentic or not, informed my taste buds and memory of what I believed Sichuan food should be. Continuing my search for a good bowl of dandan noodles, it only made sense that I should return to the fountainhead.
A run to SFO provided the opportunity, and I bumped over the street torn up for BART construction to find the restaurant in the same spot after an absence of some dozen years. But now it was spruced up with a dusty rose color scheme and bright lighting, and had doubled in size. The menu posted outside was far more extensive, taking in the standard Chinese-y take-out stuff and also Vietnamese food (!). Clearly some big changes had been made, but I was here, why not check it out.
I asked my waitress to describe the dandan mian to me, specifically asking her about the kinds of chiles and whether peanuts were included. Since shed never tried it herself or had anyone order it, she checked with the kitchen. When she said it had a hot chile sauce and no peanuts, I went for it.
What came out was a small bowl of chewy noodles topped with blackish-brown sauce and a fine mince of bamboo shoots, dried mushrooms, onions, garlic, scallions, and wood ear fungus. Not only no peanuts, but not a chile in sight or any redness to the sauce. However, it looked good and I decided to keep it. Tasting confirmed that this was zha jiang mian instead and it was a decent version.
I pointed out the mistake to the next waitress who passed by who was embarrassed by the error. I asked her about the changes in the restaurant and the old sifu, and it turns out she had come back after some years away and used to work for the previous incarnation. She said the ownership changed 10 years ago and expanded the size and menu. At that time the old chef was in his 60s and his wife made him retire. I had noticed that nearly every table with Chinese patrons had ordered the salt boiled chicken served with ginger-scallion sauce. The waitress said it is a specialty here, made from Chinese-raised chickens with a sweeter taste. She recommended it in the rice noodle soup and also the Vietnamese specialties for my next visit.
Asking about the dan dan mian preparation by todays kitchen, she said that the recipe is the same as for zha jiang mian with chile sauce added to spice it up. So now I know that my archetype has disappeared . . . the hunt continues.
681 San Mateo Ave.
(across from Artichoke Joes)
Open 7 days
10:30am to 9:30pm