After reading some messages on this board, I decided I would have to trek to Zoe's. Not knowing the parking situation, I ditched the car and walked there from Porter Square. It turns out that parking on the street, at least before 6 PM, should be no problem.
My main haunt recently has been Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica (if you want a rundown on all the things I've tried by now, give a holler), so I ordered several things that I am familiar with and like there. Here are my comments.
Hot and Sour Soup--no visible pork, otherwise this version features all the ingredients we associate with this soup, including golden needles and woodears. Peppery but not the least bit sour, alas. I think all the restaurants have forgotten that this is supposed to be hot and SOUR soup--and sometimes it is not even hot! Anyway, one advantage of takeout is that it is easy to adjust the level of sourness. I am not going to rank this, because NO ONE I am going to mention in this post has a decent hot and sour soup--unless we divert ourselves to hot and sour soup with wontons, in which case, Sichuan Gourmet's is divine. (Unfortunately, I forgot to order this at Zoe's.)
Cellophane Noodles with Pork--the first thing I noticed was that a goodly percentage of the ground pork was little chunks of fat. As a westerner, I don't find this appealing. Although I initially tasted some of the brightness that characterizes Sichuan Garden's, the chiles quickly overpowered the taste. Since I do like to taste the nuances of what I am eating, I would rank Zoe's rendition last, with Sichuan Garden (Brookline) being #1 and Sichuan Gourmet being #2. If you want your "ants climbing a tree" to be really spicy, you'd probably rank Zoe's #1.
Ma Po Tofu was next on the agenda. This was more subtle than the preceding dish was. Again, I immediately noticed that the ground pork was very fatty. The flavor was good, and I could even discern Sichuan peppercorns, but it was not quite as good as Sichuan Gourmet's rendition, which is brightened by the addition of fermented black beans. Since I recall that Sichuan Garden's version was totally lackluster, the ranking is 1 Sichuan Gourmet, 2 Zoe's, 3 Sichuan Garden.
Sour Chicken, which I like to order as a foil for heavier, spicier dishes, was next. It was not very sour. I liked the veggies better than that in Sichuan Gourmet's version. The water chestnuts and celery provide a pleasant crunch, while the green that Sichuan Gourmet uses just gets limp. It's not clear to me which version tastes better. I think Sichuan Gourmet's rendition may be slightly better in that department, but I'm not sure. I do wish both versions were more sour, but since they are not, this may be the way it is in Sichuan Province.
Beef and Tripe (cold) is last because I have come to really love this dish elsewhere. I immediately noticed a very familiar smell.... In Zoe's version, the beef is much thicker, which is okay, and the tripe is also thick, which was not as okay. (For what it's worth, the first time I went to Sichuan Gourmet, the meats were cut into very neat rectangles, and that is what I reported. Since then, it has been shredded.) Neither this version nor Sichuan Gourmet's is as unwieldy or fatty as Sichuan Garden's version. Although Zoe's version is good, I don't think the flavor is quite as lovely and complex as Sichuan Gourmet's version, so the latter ranks number 1. I am not sure how Zoe's and Sichuan Garden's renditions compare. I should add that Zoe's and Sichuan Garden list this as beef with tripe; Sichuan Goumret lists it as beef with tendon, but it also contains some tripe, and this is the same dish.
I'm going to have to remind myself whether Sour Chicken is on Sichuan Garden's menu. Then, after I get some room in my fridge, I will go back there to try a few more familair dishes.