A crew of 11 converged on FuLoon Restaurant in Malden on Saturday night for dinner. The place was shockingly empty, save for a handful of people chattering in Mandarin and a handful of other chowhounders. I'll start off with dish names and my impressions, and invite the other guys to weigh in with what they thought. For reference purposes:
Wonton with special hot sauce (hong-you chao-shou, #186 on the take-out menu): these are the Sichuan signature dumplings, similar but not quite identical to wontons. I actually didn't think they were on the menu, but our hostess pointed them out in the Mandarin dim sum section. The chao-shou themselves were pretty good, light thin skins and a filling which was decent, though a compadre pointed out that Sichuan Garden adds something, possibly vegetable, that adds some flavor and texture and makes it just a bit more interesting, though we couldn't figure out what. The red oil was quite good, a nice mix of spicy and a little numbing, though I think Sichuan Garden still gets the nod on this one also -- I think at SG the key is the addition of rock sugar which adds sweetness and just a little crunch texture. Nonetheless, very well executed, and flavor a good step ahead of the likes of Chilli Garden or Sichuan Gourmet.
FuLoon JingDu Pork Pancake (rui-fu jing-du rou-bing, #19): as noted previously, sort of like a Peking ravioli filling stuffed into the middle of a scallion pancake. The pancake was lovely and crisp this time around, and the whole thing worked very well dipped into vinegar or even better, dipped into the red oil from the wontons.
Kan Shue String Beans (gan-shao si-ji-dou, #134). A fairly classic Sichuan application, apparently a big hit at the table, though I unfortunately didn't get to this dish in time.
Shanghai Cabbage with Black Mushrooms (bei-gu pa cai-dan, #137). Another fairly classic real-deal Chinese restaurant vegetable with baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms. Nicely done in a white sauce, not too goopy or syrupy and the mushrooms added the right earthiness without tasting like dirt.
The Hot Stuff:
Special Crabs & Garlic & Red Pepper (suan-song-xiang-la xie, #2). Looked really promising on the menu. The crabs came up loaded with a mix of chili pepper seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic and possibly Chinese chives. A similar mix finds its way into their boiled beef (see below) and hot diced chicken. It was tasty here, but the proportion of stuffing to crab bordered on the absurd (I dug and dug through a shell and got only a tiny amount of crab meat, though what I got was juicy, tender, sweet and did play beautifully against the filling, as little of it as there was). Not bad, but for the money, I think I'd opt for something else next time.
Hot Diced Chicken Szechuan Style (ge-le-shan la-zi ji, #10). As before, small chunks of boneless deep-fried chicken served up on a bed of dried chiles, chile flakes and Sichuan peppercorns. Oddly enough, the Sichuan peppercorns (hua-jiao) didn't quite deliver the bite I was expecting, plenty of aroma, lots of citrus, but none of the numbing effect that I prize. More on this below.
Steamed Beef, Szechuan Style (si-chuan shui-zhu-niu, aka "boiled beef" #11). One of the finest versions of this Sichuan classic that I've come across, lovely and beautifully tender cuts of beef dipped into a wonderfully hot sauce, but with a few other flavor elements like black bean paste and possibly vinegar that elevate this to another level. New Taste of Asia and Sichuan Garden still hold the lead, partly because of superior handling of the Sichuan peppercorns, but this one is way up there for me.
Hot & Spicy Bean Curd (ma-po dou-fu, #144). We opted for this one instead of the dou-hua #18 that we had the last time. Lots of garlic in this one, and easily the spiciest thing on the table. Nice dusting of Sichuan peppercorns on top, though still not dense enough to create that lovely nirvana-like numbing and burning thing that I miss from New Taste and Sichuan Garden on a good night, but still very fine.
Jiang Pao Duck (jiang-bao yu-pian, #1). As Lipoff observed, this is boneless duck slices in a caramelized soy sauce, served up with slivers of raw scallions, fresh cucumber and hoisin sauce to wrap in a moo-shu type pancake wrapper. It appears to be a first cousin of standard Beijing roast duck, and was a beautifully executed mix of flavors, with the sweetness and saltiness of the caramelized soy playing off beautifully against the crisp crunch of the scallions and the fatty goodness of the duck.
Mandarin Style Whole Fish (Shandong tang-cu yu-pian, #5): A Shandong style sweet and sour preparation for a whole fish. This one went over so well that there was only a smattering of fish meat to pick off the bones by the time it got over to my side of the table. What little fish I got tasted plump and tender and flavorful.
Starch Noodle with Pork (Shandong rou-si la-pi, #12): Julienned pork strips with slices of cucumber and broad flat mung bean noodles in a soy based sauce. Limster identified vinegar in the sauce; I couldn't quite make up my mind if the sourness came from vinegar or maybe even from lemon juice? Very interesting flavor, new to me, and a nice mild foil to the hot stuff.
Diced Chicken with Dates and Chestnuts (zao-sheng yao-zi ji, #15): Chunks of chicken served up with Chinese chestnuts and Chinese dates (jujubes). Nice mild preparation with the nuts offering a characterful alternative to the standard chicken-and-cashew Chinese-American combo.
Wok Baked Beef (guo-kao niu-rou, #22): An interesting cooking style that I've never seen before. Literally translated, the dish name means wok-roasted, what we saw was a cast iron frying pan with the same choice cuts of beef that we saw in the boiled beef, only here swimming in a caramelized soy crust reminiscent of the duck. The results were a flavor revelation -- the caramelization sort of reminds me of the caramel in guo-ba (rice crispy stuff also found in Sichuan food), crispy crust on the outside yet juicy and tender on the inside. The chef says he made up this dish -- a quick google search finds a few things that match up to the two characters but not much. Really good and definitely worth revisiting in its other meat flavors.
Sizzling Chicken (tie-ban ji-pian, #78): "Iron plate" chicken is pre-cooked, then delivered in its final stage on a rocket-hot cast iron plate producing dramatic sizzling that makes great theater in a Chinese restaurant. It was one of the few things that my wife ate regularly when we were in Changsha, because it was one of the few things (at this little hole-in-the-wall orange-tableclothed joint that doesn't exist any more) that wasn't insanely spicy. Iron plate chicken gets produced differently in just about every other restaurant that we've tried around the planet (with the peculiar exception of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain). This version was nothing particularly special, decent chunks of chicken and vegetables, but I'd opt for the wok-baked stuff over the iron plate next time.
The ownership was sufficiently grateful for a crew of 11 on a slow Saturday night that we got a dessert thrown in on the house -- Sesame Sweet Rice Ball (zhi-ma tang-yuan, #190). These are the sesame paste-inside-glutinous rice things that were asked about recently, and sure enough, these are boiled in rice wine (mi-jiu), though a little weak for sipping. Lovely, tender and sweet rice balls, far superior to the out-of-the-supermarket specials that we got from Sichuan Gourmet.
In all, a tip of the hat again to lipoff and to limster for trumpeting the virtues of this joint. My visit here was long overdue, but I'm extremely glad I went. I think this may easily be the best all-around real deal Chinese restaurant in the greater Boston area. I think that the guys at Sichuan Garden are a little more skilled with the Sichuan peppercorns, but with either a better supplier or a little more toasting, these Sichuan dishes will rank with the finest that I've had stateside. And the guy does astonishingly good Shandong and other regional dishes to boot.
A big group is nice for this sort of excursion, because we got a chance to try a range of dishes without hideously overstuffing ourselves. I'll definitely be heading back to this place, in groups large and small, over and over again.