Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fun Playing with Soup Dumplings at a New Place in NJ

We recently drove out out to New York to cook for and celebrate Passover with my family. As per usual, we headed for Gourmet Chopsticks in Fairfield NJ, intending to meet a group of friends for dinner, coming from Jersey, Westchester and Manhattan. I checked the restaurant website a few days before I left and all was well, so imagine my surprise when I pulled into the parking lot after six hours of driving to find the "Gourmet Chopsticks" sign removed from it's holder, and only one car in the parking lot next to a dark restaurant. Uh-oh.

Thanks to technology, I not only reached everyone from the desolate parking lot, but got suggestions and decided on an authentic Chinese restaurant alternative only seven miles away. And so, our now reduced party of 8 (we lost one group to illness and another to traffic on the Tappen Zee Bridge) converged on Cheng Du 23, located next to Willowbrook Mall in the West Belt Plaza, Wayne, New Jersey. 

Cheng Du's menu says it's a Sichuan Cuisine restaurant, but the take-out menu also, incongruously, mentions Dim Sum. The only Dim Sum on the menu that I recall was the Xiao Long Bao, but perhaps they offer a separate menu on weekend mornings. We happily cleaned no fewer than 10 plates (including a double order of Xiao Long Bao), and I do believe we could have eaten more. 

Pork Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings or Juicy Buns)

These were two of the best Xiao Long Bao I've had. Lots of hot juicy soup, tender pork, delicate wrapper that didn't break - almost perfect! Worth the price of admission all by itself.

Minced chicken with garlic sauce wrapped in fresh lettuce

The corn was unusual in this dish and added a sweet note against the chilis. None of the spicy dishes seemed especially so, though; I think being newcomers here, the staff wanted to make sure we'd be happy with a more Americanized spice level. The chicken was perfectly cooked and had almost a creamy texture that was very satisfying.

Da Lu Mian
 (Noodles Topped with Chicken, Pork, Shrimp, & Vegetables with Brown Sauce on Top)
This noodle dish is listed on the menu under "Big Bowl Noodle Soup" rather than the "Noodle" section, probably because it is made with ramen-style noodles, though it has no soup. We liked it, though I missed the hand-cut Shanghai-style noodles from Gourmet Chopsticks.

Chinese Eggplant with Salted Egg Yolks & Chopped Peppers

This was probably the most "authentic" dish we had. Though the menu described the eggplant as "boiled," boiled in oil would be more accurate - hence the beautiful color and velvety texture of the eggplant. The eggplant contrasted beautifully against the slightly grainy, salty egg yolks and crunchy bits of pepper.

Heavenly Chicken: Sauteed w/Ginger & Garlic in Chong Qing brown sauce
The name pretty much describes this dish - velvety soft chicken with a savory coating and mild brown sauce, nestled over crispy snowpeas; I guess it was kind of heavenly.

Sliced lamb sauteed with cumin powder and chopped dry chili
Though the lamb was melt-in-the-mouth tender and the seasonings tasty, I wanted a stronger chili/sichuan peppercorn hit from this version of Cumin Lamb. 

Shredded Pork sauteed with Dried Tofu & Chinese Celery
This was another dish that would have benefited from more spice, but again, the components were prepared well and the sauce tasty. 

Sauteed Sichuan Style Sausage (a spicy Lap Cheong) with Garlic Leek
Described on the menu as "sausage," I wasn't expecting dried sausage. But it was obvious at first glance that the meat was Lap Cheong, with a spicy twist cooked in! The freshness of the ingredients put this dish over the top for me, and it was one of the few served to us that was sufficiently spiced. 

Sauteed Snow Pea Leaf with Garlic

The last dish was one of the best - while it may seem hard to get excited about the ubiquitous sauteed snowpea leaf, this version was perfect in every way.

I expect if we frequented Cheng Du 23 more frequently, the spice and ma la levels would ramp up; we did not have Mandarin-speaking Jo-Ann with us due to illness. The dishes were well executed, just a bit under-spiced for our taste. I would definitely return; there is a pork belly dish on the menu calling my name. Fun Playing With Authentic Chinese Food in New Jersey; thank goodness for choices! FYI, the proprietor at Cheng Du 23 said the new place coming into Gourmet Chopsticks will be a sushi restaurant. We'll stick with soup dumplings.

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