This week's bargain is in a little house on Pembina Highway, so tiny (24 seats, maybe) it's easy to miss, but with a Chinese menu as lengthy and fascinating as some of its bigger competitors down the road. But also (sigh!), with a server who, although charming and willing, knew little English and even less about the dishes. Inevitably some items we thought we'd ordered didn't turn up. Equally inevitably, some that we hadn't ordered did. But -- and it's a big but -- most of what we did get, whether ordered or not, was marvellous, and the reason for the full column review and the extra half star over Yougot's four star rating of a few years ago.
The menu does list several familiar standards, but the bulk of it is devoted to food from the provinces, many of them from China's extreme northeast. Fortunately, the boss, who is fluent in English, turned up and led us through the labyrinth of unfamiliar dishes. I did ask his name for future reference, but he said, just ask for "the boss." I suggest doing so (even if you're an old China hand) and reserving your table as well, since the space is so limited.
With his guidance, and with the help (before he turned up) of the little symbols that identify them on the menu we stayed with what are called "traditional" dishes. I can't vouch for such familiar standards as wonton soup, chow mein or lemon chicken, but I suspect that the best efforts of any kitchen will go into what the chefs know and like best. Portions are large and, with most prices from $9.99 to $12.99, a steal of a deal, even for Chinese food.
I've eaten my way through many a "traditional" Chinese meal, but there were dishes here that were new to me. The first one, at a recent dinner, had everyone at the table oohing and aahing, a cold appetizer of the most amazing noodles, made of the starch of green beans -- flat, almost translucent and slippery enough to challenge chopsticks and necessitate slurping, their satiny texture and mild flavour offset by the tang and crunch of marinated cucumber and carrot strips.
The dish we finished with was as ooh-inspiring as the one we'd started with, a marvellous stew of chicken with hazel mushrooms. It's listed under main courses but is actually more of a broth, rich with the intense flavour of woodsy wild hazel mushrooms, thick with chunks of chicken and more of those seductive noodles.
And in between there were other gems. A scattering of cashews and veggies garnished big, beautiful shrimp that were full of flavour and juices -- unpeeled (which preserved those flavours and juices) and easy enough to peel, if you're finicky, or chew off, if you're not. Slightly spicy Szechuan shrimp were peeled, pan-fried and glazed with chili oil. Firm, sweet-fleshed basa fillets were battered and deep-fried, and coated in a scarlet and notably non-cloying sweet and sour sauce.
They do wonders with vegetables. I doubt there's a better asparagus dish in the city -- steamed and still resilient, strewn with scallions and strips of red pepper, and a splash of soy sauce. Treatments of eggplant were also remarkable, especially the strips that looked like french fries and were just as addictive, with a salty-sweet, almost crystallized surface. They are listed as "fish scented" but are totally vegetarian -- the fish refers to some kind of mysterious flavouring. Eggplant also came in big, fried chunks that also looked like potatoes, not as sweet as the first one but equally addictive, even if you think you don't like eggplant. We tried the country-style braised potatoes that looked so good on a nearby table, but they turned out to be nothing special, and actually were a lot more interesting in a casserole with eggplant and other veggies.
Tongue-tingling twisty strips of lamb were liberally spiced with cumin. The almost kitchen-proof mapo tofu is on many menus, but this one had a rare and intriguing depth of flavour. Stewed beef brisket was tender and pleasant if not particularly Chinese in flavour, In fact it could almost have come from any East European kitchen (although my mother would have trimmed off more of the fat) -- nice enough, but not in the same league as the bolder flavours of the other dishes. On the other hand, you may find a chili or two even in some of the non-spicy dishes. They're there for flavouring, not (I think, after a searing experience) to be eaten.
For the adventurous there's deep-fried octopus flecked with chili -- not those cute baby squiggles but sizeable, knobbly tentacles of the beast, a little chewy, and possibly not for everybody, but I liked them. Those who don't consider ox tongue exotic can have it in thin slices slicked with chili oil (for the even more adventurous there are tripe, heart, tendon and ears).
There are two kinds of dumplings. I didn't try the pan-fried potstickers, but the boiled ones, filled with pork and shrimp, were sensationally flavourful and juicy. It's not on the menu, but ask for the dessert of deep-fried, almost caramelized chunks of sweet potato, which you dip into a bowl of cold water to caramelize the surface.
The place is tiny, but pleasant, with an attractive white-on-black chrysanthemum motif on the chairs and lacquered tables, and colourful photos of some of the dishes on the walls. With any luck your server will be bilingual, but, with or even without guidance from "the boss," chances are you'll be in for a fabulous feast.
To see the location of this restaurant and others reviewed in the Free Press, please see the map below or click here.