Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fun Playing with Sichuan Food in NJ

In my earliest years, I had no interest in cooking or international cuisine. Sometime in the late 1980's, my then-fiance took me to see Juzo Itami's Tampopo, which is a film about food and sex (mostly food), and is subtitled "a noodle western." Tampopo not only whet my appetite for Asian food, but for Asian culture.

After I moved to Montclair (sans fiance) I took Chinese cooking classes with the Montclair Adult School, offered at the teacher's home. She took me to my first Chinese film, The Story of Qui Ju, and I got hooked on Chinese cinema as well as the food and culture. Jo-Mel, as she is known on EGullet, and I became friends, and I try to get to Jersey to dine with her whenever we are out that way. She has taught me all of the little Mandarin I know (she is quite fluent, having studied both at home and in China in the language, cuisine and culture), and is a joy to spend time with.

So what better way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day - we met Jo-Mel at Chengdu 1, Pilgrim Shopping Center, 89 Pompton Avenue, Cedar Grove NJ 07009, (973-239-7726). Although Cleveland has a respectable Asiatown, one thing we still do not have is a genuine Sichuan restaurant.

Two friends were supposed to join us, but they had to cancel out - so it was left to the three of us to try to dent the 6 page menu, plus the "new specials" page, plus all the items posted on the walls. We'd lunched here with Jo-Mel once before, and she's been a few times - but it was still a large task. References to item numbers below correspond to the menu, which unfortunately does not seem to be online yet.

For starters, we decided to pass on the delicious Sichuan Wonton with Red Oil ("regular" Appetizers #81)

in favor of a handwritten special - Spicy Vegetable Dumpling (Handwritten Special under "Appetizer Szechuan Style"):

The dumplings were awash in a lightly spicy bath. Though they were good - we liked the Sichuan ones better.

We also decided to try the "home made" Sichuan Style Sausage (Wall Poster):

I especially liked the sausage (which was a little too fatty for me) dipped in the Dumpling Bath.

We then proceeded to share five entrees among the three of us - and yes, an ample supply of leftovers was packed up for my mom to try:

Braised Lamb Fillet w/Chili Sauce (House Special #64)

This dish was positively fiery! And the lamb was exquisitely tender and tasty.

Spicy Volcano Chicken (House Special #61a)

This was also quite fiery and most delicious. The final dish was dry fried - and the meat tasted and melted like it had been poached in hot oil and allowed to cook through that way rather than just velvetized.

Sauteed Noodle with Pork and Yellow Chive (Handwritten Special)

We all really liked this - tender noodles, sweet pork and a light sauce that complimented the spicy dishes perfectly.

Scallion Fish Fillet (Fish Szechuan Style #25)

This mild fish dish also complimented the spicy foods well - we had considered a spicy fish dish, but were glad that we reconsidered. The fish was very fresh and the light brown sauce mated well with the scallions.

Pickled Cabbage with Minced Pork (Szechuan Home Style Vegetables #NV1)

This was our least favorite dish. The "pickle" part was very strong, and overwhelmed the other flavors. Despite the visible chilies, to our palates, the sourness overpowered any heat that might have been in the dish. Ironically, my mom, who hates strong flavors and spice, loved these leftovers. Go figure.

We had a marvelous lunch and look forward to dining at Chengdu 1 again!

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