Saturday night, July 5, was the second Chowhound-inspired get-together at China Village, a Szechuan restaurant on Solano, just to the Albany side of the Albany-Berkeley border. I expected it to be good, but I didn't expect it to be this good.
It was a Szechuan meal that turned me into a foodie. I was going to school in Boston, and a fraternity brother insisted that I had to go with him to a particular restaurant. Now, Boston wasn't, and isn't, exactly slopping over with authentic Chinese restaurants. But, for a brief period in 1979-1980, there was a truly excellent Szechuan restaurant on Mass Ave in Central Square. It was called Wu Fu. What I remember vividly was a dish of Kung Pao chicken, a dish which has become a favorite for making at home, but which I've never had done well at a restaurant. Except Wu Fu. It was a simple dish of chicken pieces, scallions, blackened dried peppers, and peanuts, nothing else, the whole dish glossy with oil. The flavor combination -- burned peppers, sweetness, oiliness, scallion was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. Sure, it was hot, and got even hotter when I ignorantly popped a pepper into my mouth, saying "what's this, a bean?" Those were my last words for 10 minutes. I drank water, and my "friend" chortled. Still, the experience awoke something. It was my attempts to re-create this dish in the fraternity basement kitchen that started me on a path to cooking and eating well.
Eventually I got to experience many different Chinese cuisines, and I'd have to admit that Cantonese has taken over as my favorite, and as my nominee for world's best cuisine when it's properly done. But Szechuan was my first love, and it still makes me happy in a way that nothing else can quite do. Which is a bit sad, because I didn't have a meal as good as the ones I had at Wu Fu, until I finally made it to Hong Kong. For 17 years, I lived in Seattle, a town without one good Szechuan restaurant. When I moved to the Bay Area, my hopes were a bit dim. People didn't get excited about the Szechuan prospects here. Oh, they'd say "Little Sichuan is pretty good," and it is. But really exciting Szechuan food didn't seem to be in the cards.
Enter China Village. Last night's feast, which we ordered a la carte, was a dazzling lineup of dishes, which left us all shaking our heads and saying "Wow. That was REALLY good."
I've got a marked-up menu here, courtesy of the ordering crew, so I have the names (and numbers) of the dishes as they appear on the menu. The REAL menu, that is. China village has two -- the Westerner's menu, and the smaller Chinese menu, which is, three cheers, in English. The take-out menu, curiously, is the Chinese menu. Here's what we ate:
If you'd taken a picture of our appetizers, you would have thought: boring! They kind of looked the same. There were 4 dishes, and each looked like a main ingredient and a red-brown sauce, with slight variations in color. In fact, each dish was very different, showing tanginess, or chiliness, or meatiness, or numbingness, or a touch of bitter, or rich bean qualities in wonderfully different ways that complemented the food to an impressive degree. I would have loved to describe all the ways that those flavors played out in each dish, but it was all I could do to get the names down and jot a few notes.
9. Spicy Combination
Yeah, I know, a lot of the menu entries are like this, you don't know what you're going to get unless you read Chinese. This one was thin slices of beef and tripe in an earthy, spicy sauce, no simple oil sauce here, rich and full of flavor, somehow you could taste the intense sauce and the very flavorful beef and the subtle tripe all at once, and it worked fabulously well. One of my favorites. EXCELLENT PLUS
10. Sliced Side pork with spicy garlic sauce
Pork fat, anyone? Thin-sliced belly pork and a rich chili sauce. A luxurious mouthful, well-complemented by the sauce. VERY GOOD
15. Szechwan Home-Style Chicken
a.k.a. "Bon-Bon Chicken.", but a much earthier, more down-home version than the silky sweet sesame sauced plate that appears in many restaurants. Didn't rate it in my notes, but liked it a lot.
18. Cucumber with garlic sauce
Crisp, dense long quarter-cylinders of firm cucumber, 1/3" thick, covered in a nicely spiced sauce with some midpalate heft to it. VERY GOOD PLUS
With the entrees, we had what I assume is:
106. Sesame Flat Bread
This is a thick version of scallion cakes, but with sesame seeds. In other words, a nice thick fried bread, crisp outside, soft inside, cut into wedges. It was tasty on its own, but much better sopped with sauce from one dish or another. Really nice, and very addictive. EXCELLENT MINUS
I don't think this was on the menu, but they had one, and recommended it, so we ordered it. Pancakes wrapped around meat and skin and scallion, good meat flavor, but a bit bland and dull, and I couldn't really taste the skin that's supposed to be the highlight of this dish. Not something I'd order here again. FAIR
37. Szechwan Style Spicy Boiled Beef
Now here's a reasonable dish description. I've heard stories of people ordering what is described as "Boiled Beef" on some Szechuan menus, thinking it a safe choice for timid palates, not realizing that it's one of the hottest things in the Szechuan repertoire. This was a thoroughly delicious pot of little bits and slices of very soft beef, cabbage, and lots of chili/numbing character. Full in flavor and delightfully delicious. Spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. One of my favorites. EXCELLENT PLUS
89. Dry Sauteed Slender Bamboo shoots
This was thin, long, young bamboo shoots, wrinkled from the cooking technique, offering a moderate resistance to the tooth, tasting of sesame and meatiness, very appealing. VERY GOOD PLUS
27. Fire Busted Pork Loins
39. Dry Cooked Tripe
Let's play match-the-dish. I've got a kidney dish and a pork intestines dish, and the two menu descriptions above. Well, people sometimes call intestines "tripe", and they sure seemed dry-cooked, so let's figure ol' No 39 is the intestines dish.
It's an important point. The intestines dish was perhaps my favorite dish of the night. Dark brown, almost black 1" long, 3/4" thick cylinders with a crisp outside and a surprisingly firm but creamy inside, and a superb savory flavor that got inside my head in the way that truffles do. EXCELLENT PLUS
The kidneys were very popular, and oohed and aahed over a great deal. I liked it, but not enough to ooh. Kidneys, crosshatch-cut, stir-fried with garlic and what I felt was too much cornstarch. For me, the cornstarch and the sweetness obscured the distinctive flavor and firm texture of kidneys, which I love. If I didn't love kidneys so much, I probably wouldn't be so picky on this point. Call it VERY GOOD.
31. Hot and Spicy Pork Feet.
On my marked-up menu, "Feet" is crossed off, and a word substituted, that I think is "shoulder." I'm not sure how this variation was negotiated, and someone called it "Szechuan braised pork shoulder." The dish was a soft, savory fall-apart stew of pork and connective tissue, flavored with 5-spice but not a 5-spice monolith, rich and full in the mouth, lots of umami. EXCELLENT MINUS
35 West Style Spicy Fish
Interesting dish, that was new to me. Soft pieces of fish and thickish transparent noodles (bean thread?) in a savory broth that looked as though it had white miso in it, though of course that's a Japanese thing, so I don't know what was really in there. Covering the white broth were several dozen roasted dried hot peppers, and we were advised to let the dish sit, to the pepper flavor had a chance to spread through the broth. I let it sit too long, I think, my palate was heavy with bean sauces and chili by the time I got to my bowl, and I wasn't expecting such a subtle, nuanced dish. So some of the subtleties were lost on me, at least to judge by the enthusiastic endorsement it got from others. Nice dish, but I missed the full experience. Not particularly spicy, despite all those peppers. VERY GOOD PLUS (but probably better than that, I want to try it again)
At about this point, there was a dish of green vegetables, but it was pretty forgettable, and I don't see it marked on my menu, so the heck with it.
70. Spicy To-Fu with Fish Fillet
Wow. Slightly tangy, thin, red broth with a good spicy kick and medium-soft textures of pieces of fish and tofu. I was nearly full by this point, but eagerly downed this wonderful dish, and even managed an extra bowl of the exquisite, subtle broth. EXCELLENT PLUS
80. Spicy Sauce Potato Strips
Whoa. Totally misleading menu description, but what else is new. What this was, was a simple-looking dish of what looked like long unbending noodles, but cut from a potato (using a mandoline), and thin wedges of fresh Jalapeno. No apparent sauce. The combination of the undercooked-potato flavor and the fresh green Jalapeno flavor was a simple and beautiful thing. Very refreshing to the spirit, and a worthy end to a very fine meal. EXCELLENT PLUS
This was really an excellent meal. So many distinctively different, wonderful sauces. Well-planned ordering meant that we always had something a little refreshing, a little different coming out. The flavors reflected excellent chef sensibilities, as though the whole trajectory of spice along your palate had been plotted out like a rocket launch. There was always enough spice, enough hotness and/or numbness to let you know that this was absolutely Szechuan food, no holds barred, but never too much. My palate was always dancing with spice, and never blasted by it.
Great place. Check it out.
1335 Solano Ave
Albany, CA 94706