Last Monday I joined some friends high up on an El Cerrito hill to celebrate their acquisition of a building site for a new home. We spilled some wine (Tempier rosé and Dehlinger Pinot Noir) on the real estate to honor the occasion and noshed on hand cut prosciutto, cheeses, and other goodies while soaking in the view of San Francisco Bay and the City framed by the Bay Bridge and Mount Tam. Their uncle who was trying to match up a map of the area with the panorama before him asked me, can we see China Village from here? While Ive often been called upon to identify the landmark buildings in downtown SF, this was the first time Ive been asked to find this small restaurant on Solano Avenue! It seems that the recollection of our Chinese New Years Eve meal still burns bright in Uncle Toms memory. Then he suggested that we retire there for dinner and to find some shelter from the brisk winds.
As others have theorized, Ive suspected that the head chefs nights off are Mondays and Tuesdays. The food has not been as finely tuned when Ive eaten there a handful of times on those nights leaving me disappointed. Naturally, I had some trepidation about dropping in with a group on Monday. However, we enjoyed an inexpensive and very good meal sticking to the dishes I felt the kitchen could handle and relying on Mr. Yaos suggestions. While a couple dishes were a bit off the mark, the second chef is getting better and our party of 7 left happily stuffed.
One of the cool things about bringing new people here for the first time is that I get a chance to return to some old favorites. In addition to those standards, we tried some dishes that were new to me, including
Home style organic chicken Szechwan home style chicken is one of menus standard cold plates, slices of boneless poached chicken topped with a garlicky, savory sauce. Available this evening made with organic free-range chicken, it had a firmer flesh and skin and more complex and intense chicken-ness flavor in the meat. I noticed that my friends had left the pieces of chicken skin on their plates, probably without trying it. Dont make the same mistake.
Water dumplings in hot red oil (hong you shui jiao) While this particular preparation is not on the menu, I have had the plain water dumplings a couple times with mixed results. When Mr. Yao suggested this style, I pressed him to assure me that these dumplings would be the good ones. He did, and they were. Pebbly-textured tender wrappers around a loosely formed pork filling, the boiled dumplings were bathed in medium hot red oil seasoning sauce.
Prawns with XO sauce Nicely seasoned, but the prawns were coarse and overcooked. Not recommended.
Water spinach (kong xin cai) with preserved bean curd Very fresh and beautiful convolvulus vines with tender stems and not at all stringy, plus a judicious hand with the preserved bean curd to add just a nuance and not overpower the flavor of the greens. Enjoy it in season now.
Swimming Mandarin fish braised with bean curd A live Mandarin fish (aucha perch) imported from China braised in an earthy brown sauce with fresh bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, and an unknown ingredient that Mr. Yao referred to as something like heart of the mushroom or soul of the earth (???) that he says gives it the depth of flavor. Deep-fried cubes of firm tofu soaked up the delicious sauce. This dish would normally be made with some fine strips of pork, but the meat was omitted this time for our tables non-meat eater. This was my favorite dish of the night - Id like to try it soon with the full treatment.