Can you ever really have too many chilies?
The answer to that — or whether you read it as a straightforward inquiry or a rhetorical question — may be found at Z&Y Bistro, a spinoff of the acclaimed Z&Y Restaurant, chef-owner Li Jun Han’s consistently good Szechuan eatery on Jackson Street. The kitchen must go through enough chilis to give Cal/OSHA pause. The word “mainstay” is an ugly, colorless cliche, but Z&Y is the epitome of a Chinatown mainstay: It’s a Bib Gourmand winner that consistently hovers around the periphery of Best-in-S.F. lists, with comfort foods like wonton soup served alongside various meats in flaming chili oil and a heavy helping of offal.
As a little sibling, Z&Y Bistro pares down the mothership’s menu, grafts on some Japanese dishes, and adds a commendable wine and sake list. Asian-fusion, yes, but executed from a culinary vantage point and not a marketing one. In terms of decor, it’s less Cal/OSHA than Osha Thai, with an atmosphere that almost begs to be forgotten — exposed brick notwithstanding — but Z&Y is worthy of your time for a few reasons, all of which are food.
First, it’s just as much a successor to the first Z&Y as to places like Terra Cotta Warrior and Old Mandarin Islamic, which eschew the coastal regions for China’s rugged west. Rice is less important than noodles, vegetables are subordinated to meat, and there is virtually no subtlety. “Hot” and “numbing” are the poles here, and the Chinese half of Z&Y Bistro’s menu falls between them. Start with cool-but-not-cold “Couple’s Delight,” imported straight from the first Z&Y. It’s as unusual as it is simple, a pile of meat looking as if it had been shaved off a shawarma or kebab cone and then ladled out of a lake of fire.
The duck tongue in a clay pot ($18.95) is essentially a delicious pile of meat swimming in Szechuan chili oil with fragments of chilies all over it like unexploded ordnance, plus green beans and lotus root. Yes, you will have to reckon with some cartilaginous bits, but the numbness is too satisfying. It’s the most veg-heavy dish, although there are jalapeños in there in addition to the red chilies. If you want the heat without the organ meat, a pot of six spicy pork-and-chicken dumplings has it ($8.95). They’re dense and firm, without the Q texture of their Taiwanese equivalents, but rustic and eminently satiating, as if they lured some shepherds out of a sandstorm on the steppe. “Fish in Flaming Chili Oil” is hard to resist, though, and you shouldn’t. This $18.95 beauty has a texture so flaky it’s a miracle it left the kitchen intact.
The other half of the menu is Japanese, mostly yakitori. Here, too, offal reigns, as in options like chicken liver (roasted until they began to fuse). Although the duck breast yakitori is perfectly wonderful, it’s the eringi mushroom skewers — also known as king trumpets, $7.95 — that had the best texture, with less residual oil.
There’s ramen, too, including soy, miso, and tonkotsu. Since it’s from deep in China’s interior, I suppose the lanzhou ($12.95) is technically not a ramen but a beef noodle soup, and what its broth lacks in tonkotsu richness balances out in the chew of the noodles. “Soup that eats like a meal” was the tagline for Campbell’s Chunky line a few years back, but this is still an accurate description — and it makes this writer hunger for the Shaanxi boomlet of 2014, when San Francisco suddenly had thick, hand-pulled noodles everywhere. But few if any of those restaurants had beer-and-wine licenses, and Z&Y Bistro has a sturdy list of wines (all by the glass, and most from California) plus a few sakes, including good old milky-white Sho Chiku Bai nigori.
The main flaw with Z&Y isn’t what it has but what it lacks. There aren’t enough appetizers or small plates, and what few there are either aim low (edamame) or largely replicate the bigger dishes in style and flavor profile. Many people can only order so many chef’s recommendations that are listed under the heading of flaming or explosive, and Z&Y risks foisting palate exhaustion on its patrons without some pickled vegetables or cucumber salads. But on the whole, the execution is smart even if the range is limited. Ruggedness was seldom so refined.
Z&Y Bistro, 606 Jackson St., 415-986-1899 or zybistro.com