Tastes of tongue, intestine, and ear prove city has Imperial fare to fawn for
Published: July 20, 2011
Sliced pig’s ear in hot chili oil? Bring it on. Duck tongues showered in jalapeños? Can’t get enough. Crispy pork intestine with dried pepper? Where have you been all my life?
Chinese cuisine is one of the world’s greats, right up there with French. But you wouldn’t know that from the selection in San Antonio. Chinese cuisine is perhaps the world’s most varied, but not here. Chinese cuisine is simply not hip. And this is true not only in San Antonio but around the country, where it has been replaced in the affections of many by the more exciting-seeming Thai, Vietnamese, even Korean. Sichuan Cuisine holds out the hope that there’s life in the old Kung Pao yet.
Well, maybe not Kung Pao. It could be the staple dish is a marvel at Sichuan, a sprawling and somewhat featureless restaurant, but we were as intensely focused as kids under a Christmas tree on dishes we had never seen before — or hadn’t encountered in years. A dish as simple as dan-dan noodle, one of many Sichuan Snacks, seems like a revelation with its lustrous noodles in a savory sauce containing ground pork, chili oil, and spinach … though not the peanuts sometimes added. Chengdu-style steamed dumplings, their silken wrappers containing individual nuggets of pork, arrived in a bowl whose contents gave up aromas of five-spice powder and chilies when stirred. “All good foods are found in Chengdu,” goes an old Chinese saying, and we were beginning to believe it already.
Perfumy Sichuan pickle, with cabbage, radish, and crunchy celery bathed in a chili-vinegar oil, was a hit on another occasion. But in terms of merit-badge accumulation, the clear appetizer winner was the sliced pig’s ear, also in a spicy chili oil. The mound of rosy shreds did little to betray its origins, and the flavor was elusive, but this is a dish as much about texture as taste.
Taking it easy on the first visit (with the exception of the pig’s ears) we ordered a very simple but deeply satisfying plate of tea-smoked duck. Good and meaty and infused with just enough tannic smoke, the duck is an exercise in the rewards of minimalism. More in your face, and conjuring Mongol hordes thundering across a plain, was the stir-fried lamb with spicy sauce and cumin sautéed until nearly dry and served over shredded lettuce that effectively cooled the toasty spices and generous salt. Sautéed until blistered and served with ground pork, the green beans that might have been a standout at any other restaurant seemed merely marvelous.
Emboldened by suggestions from one of the Chinese waiters, we returned to do battle with duck tongues served with a staggering quantity of sliced, but remarkably tame, jalapeños. And, yes, there is some strategy required; ducks don’t have the same pliant muscle we do. Chewing, followed by discreet ejection of the cartilage running the length of the appendage, worked. So did using projecting pieces of cartilage as a handle, then stripping off the slightly fatty meat between our teeth. But there were tons of tongues. Take your pick.