Hot Stuff

The best Sichuan food in the Bay Area comes from a modest place in Albany

When I lived in Southern California and would visit my family in the Bay Area, friends in L.A. and N.Y. always wanted to hear about the new hot places in San Francisco where I'd eaten, as research for their own trips. But often I didn't know whether to be embarrassed or smug when I told them that we seldom made the trip over the bridge into the city — and not just because of the distance, the traffic, or fear of parking (or, more accurately, the lack of it). My parents and siblings and cousins and friends were simply enthusiastic about their East Bay restaurants, eager to show them off. Besides the ritual visit to Chez Panisse, the mother of us all, there'd be excursions to favorites both old and new to fit in: Oliveto, Bay Wolf, César, Lalime's, Citron, JoJo, À Coté.

And again, this past year, some of the best things I ate were in the East Bay, dishes I didn't have room to mention when I wrote last month about my delicious dining memories of 2003. At Speisekammer, a charming German eatery in Alameda (2424 Lincoln, 510/522-1300), I loved the fat pickled herrings sided by an irresistible salad of chopped apples and sliced onions dressed with sour cream and boiled potatoes sprinkled with fresh chopped parsley, as well as the silky pink flesh of the Kassler vom Grill (grilled, house-smoked pork chop, served with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes). The bright, sparkling flavors of the Cambodian food served at Battambang in Oakland (850 Broadway, 510/839-8815) — exemplified by a delicate, spicy Chinese watercress soup called samlaw machou kroeurng perfumed with lemon grass, snappy grilled lamb chops, and a warm jackfruit custard dessert — so excited me that I recommended the place (rather insistently) to everyone I knew. I adore the big, countrified breakfasts that are the specialty of Rick & Ann's in Berkeley (2922 Domingo, 510/649-8538), the inventive omelets and scrambles complemented by a range of fresh fruit muffins, gingerbread waffles, and orange-and-cardamom-scented French toast. The cooking of San Francisco favorite Zax seemed to expand to fit the new, bigger space it found across the Bay in Berkeley, where it became Zax Tavern (2826 Telegraph, 510/848-9299), its signature goat cheese soufflé joined there by such memorable starters as juicy Niman Ranch ribs and an exquisite salad of warm duck livers and poached egg served over mustardy-dressed curly frisée full of chunks of smoky bacon. My favorite Mexican meals were enjoyed at the sister restaurants of Doña Tomás (5004 Telegraph, Oakland, 510/450-0522) and Tacubaya (1788 Fourth Street, Berkeley, 510/525-5160). I loved Doña Tomás' delicate quesadillas stuffed with local fresh ricotta, epazote, and chipotle; the juicy pork carnitas; and the cloudlike, irresistible corn pudding. At the winsome taqueria Tacubaya, a welcome outpost on the Fourth Street shopping promenade, my first choice was the frijoles con todo, a layer of sliced avocado atop whole pinto beans in a sneakily spicy broth with chiles, diced tomato, onions, and melted Oaxacan cheese. And a nostalgic visit to an old family favorite in Albany, Walker's Restaurant and Pie Shop (1491 Solano, 510/525-4647), proved that you can go home again: The bargain multi-course prix fixe meals, evocative of a farmhouse dinner in Iowa, still charmed me, with fresh pea soup, excellent fried chicken, and homemade popovers and pies.

And it was in Albany again that I recently had two of the best Sichuan meals of my life — Sichuan food as good as any I had on a month-long trip to China a couple of years ago — in a deceptively ordinary-looking place called China Village. Googling around, after my surprising feasts, I noted with some amusement that a more experienced China hand than myself — after stating, “This restaurant serves by far the best Sichuan food I have found in the Bay Area or California in general. Aside from possibly one or two restaurants in New York, it is also the best Sichuan food I have seen outside of China” — qualifies his praise with the statement, “Overall, China Village would be considered a somewhat below average but very clean restaurant if it were located in Chongqing; or an average to slightly above average Sichuan restaurant for Beijing; but it is the best of its kind by far for the Bay Area.” Good to know. (I wonder if this expert knows that China Village's chef, Siu Jongyi Liu, who created the menu with owner John Yao, is a master chef from the Beijing Grand Hotel?)

I can vouch for the “very clean,” as the main impression one has on entering China Village is of bright white walls and bright white light. Its décor is generic Chinese restaurant. But its menu is not. There are two menus, actually: a big colorful laminated foldout one, with descriptions, that features the fantasy cuisine called “Mandarin,” i.e., generic Chinese dishes without a unifying geographic origin; and a less flashy, densely printed one that offers three pages of Sichuan dishes, many of which are starred (for “hot & spicy”). (The latter is the menu we're here for.) Both are in English (in many Chinese restaurants, this second menu is available only in Chinese), but you'll still need a patient waiter to help you figure out the differences among Dry Cooked Tripe, Special Cooked Tripe, Sour Cabbage with Tripe, Sour/Spicy Crispy Tripe, and Family Style Crispy Tripe.

On our first visit, we never got around to ordering any tripe at all. Roger had been to China Village a couple of times before and had some ideas, as did Peter, an English filmmaker with a passion for Asian food — the hotter the better. Once we'd chosen a few dishes among ourselves, we asked a server if there were any special things we shouldn't miss, and on his recommendation added one or two (though most of what he pointed out was already on our list, by happy accident). We chose dumplings and a cold plate of chicken as appetizers, a couple of the fried breads that are a Sichuan specialty, boiled beef, stir-fried lamb (a suggestion of the waiter), green beans, and rice (which is not customary in Sichuan meals, being replaced by breads, but which I requested as I find it an essential cooling foil for the spicy food). It sounds like a simple spread, but it was singularly exciting.

The platters came out one at a time from the kitchen, in no particular order, and though I enjoyed it when everything was on the table and on my plate, each had a moment when it could shine on its own. First were the dry-cooked green beans, long and crispy, delicate and tender. Then came the dumplings with homemade sauce, a cluster of silky-skinned, forcemeat-stuffed, crescent-shaped babies swimming in an anise-perfumed, oily sauce, crowned with chopped scallions — compulsively edible. The crisp round of layered sesame flat bread, scored into triangles, was chewy and satisfying. The cold spicy ponpon chicken (elsewhere called bumbum chicken) was as white as the room, thick and thin slivers of the firm poached white meat mixed with pale bean sprouts in a sweetish, not-too-hot sauce. Also not as incendiary as the star alongside it might lead you to think was the Village Special Lamb, a stir-fry of the meat with bright red and green peppers plus cumin and coriander, which reminded Roger and me of Muslim Chinese restaurants that specialize in lamb and breads (such as the fat, oily green onion cakes we got at China Village). Even though there were bright red chiles in almost every item we got, the only dish that deserved two stars for heat was the Sichuan-style spicy boiled beef, a homey plate something like the washday boiled-beef-and-cabbage your Irish grandmother would have made if she'd boiled the meat in chile oil instead of water. It was my favorite of everything we'd ordered, but I would happily eat all of it again.

But on my return the only rerun I permitted was the dumplings in special sauce. They were so perfectly crimped that it was a surprise when the won ton soup arrived with most of the stuffing floating free; it was quite a bare-bones version of the soup, with just a few carrots and bits of cabbage in the broth. The kitchen's heart really wasn't in it, not like it was in the home-style beef stew, bone-in cuts of beef in a lip-smackingly gelatinous shiny brown sauce packed with baby turnips, baby carrots, and coriander. Only the peanutty kung pao chicken, a Sichuan favorite that has migrated to generic Chinese menus, didn't thrill us. We were much more taken with the fire-busted pork loins, plucked from the long list of pork dishes when we found out that it was really kidneys, an organ meat that seems to have disappeared from local menus. Cut into thin strips, the kidneys contributed more chewiness than characteristic tang to the garlicky stir-fry packed with bamboo shoots and tree mushrooms. A spicy vegetable side that did prove cooling was the batons of crunchy cucumber in garlic sauce.

Albany isn't too far to go for superb Sichuan. It's so much closer than Beijing or Chongqing.

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