Dungeness Crab with Salted Tofu; Stir-Fried Water Spinach with Chili and Garlic; Szechwan-Style Spicy Beef Stew in Claypot
Favorite Restaurant: China Village
Reviewed China Village: Tuesday, August 8, 2006
There are hundreds, maybe thousands Chinese restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, but there is only one authentic Sichuan restaurant serving the real deal — that restaurant is called China Village and it is my selection for Check, Please! Bay Area. Nestled in the middle of the charming and tree-lined Solano Avenue, China Village is our favorite neighborhood restaurant in Albany.
Sichuan food has intrigued and enraptured the Western palate for ages. It is one of China’s most celebrated cuisines but it is also often a misrepresented one. Many of the Bay Area Chinese restaurants specialize in Cantonese cuisines because a large amount of immigrants from Southern China and generations of Cantonese chefs have evolved with California influence. Many restaurants call itself “Sichuan” or “Szechwan” for “hot and spicy” dishes — the most famous one is Kung Pao Chicken — but they lack sophistication and authenticity. The native chefs from Sichuan, a Southwest province of China, claim the cuisine boasts 5,000 different dishes. Sichuan food is not just about the kick of fiery red chilies and numbing Sichuan pepper. The native chefs there use unparalleled flavoring techniques to create at least twenty combinations of distinct flavors, from a sour-sweet, melting “lychee flavor,” to a punchy, seductive, “fish-fragrant flavor.” We’ve been enjoying this particular Sichuan restaurant for its distinctive, authentic, and innovative cuisine, and the flavors from this “Land of Plenty”!
China Village serves full banquet dinners, which usually consist of many courses, as well as a large selection of a la cart dinner dishes, lunch specials, and weekend brunches, called “Small Eats” (a variety of Sichuan snacks for breakfast or lunch). The décor is simple with wall art of paintings and Chinese calligraphy of some famous poems referencing Sichuan. Service is efficient and friendly. The wine list is short, but accommodating to the foods and the price is reasonable. What else can match the bold flavors but a bottle of good Riesling! All dishes are served family style for sharing and the portions are large. It also has many vegetarian and non-spicy dishes on the menu. The chefs can prepare any spiciness at customer’s request. The restaurant does make some unusual desserts if you still have room after a big meal. For example, the Eight Treasure Sticky Rice Pudding is well balanced and not overly sweet. Its pan-fried version is actually very rich and satisfying. The restaurant also serves a complementary dessert of sweet sticky rice ball soup, which has warm sweet sake and lees.
A few of our favorite dishes from China Village are:
1. West Sichuan Style Spicy Fish Filet: This dish is the most popular one from the large menu selection. When the waiter appears with a large covered soup tureen, you’ll think “Goodness, that’s a huge soup bowl.” He opens the tureen cover. You see “thousands” of hot-oil-roasted red chilies floating on the top. Your jaw drops! The waiter then skillfully skims off all of the chilies, places them in the tureen cover and takes them away. Now you see this creamy white broth with big chucks of pale white fish filets and slippery thick cellophane noodles. The waiter ladles the soup, fish, and noodles into your soup cup. Take a sip of the soup, and you’ll be surprised how delicate it tastes! It will take you to the faraway province! The chicken broth is lightly seasoned by the roasted chili pepper, which gives it a smoky, but not fiery, spicy taste. The fish filet melts in your mouth and the cellophane needles are silky smooth and chewy to the teeth. You’ll have a second cup, I bet.
2. ChongQing Style Spicy Chicken Wings (aka “Thousand Chili Chicken”): These are the best a**-kicking Buffalo wings you ever tasted! The chicken wings are well-marinated, then fried with red dry chili, Sichuan pepper corn, sliced ginger, and garlic. The wings are hot and spicy with a hint of sweetness. You will feel the “pins and needles” kind of spiciness on your tongue. The wings are crispy from frying, but not greasy. They are the best beer buddy!
3. Sichuan Style Spicy Boiled Beef : The name in Chinese just means “beef boiled in water.” Don’t be fooled! The native Sichuanese people joke that the outsiders, who are wary of the fiery local flavors, order this dish in restaurants in the hope of eating something mild or soothing. In fact, this is sensationally hot! A dish based on lashings of chili bean sauce and finished off with a sizzling pile of ground chilies and lip-tingling Sichuan pepper. This dish is intensely flavored. It is not for the faint-hearted, but if you try it and you’ll get hooked on the bold flavor.
4. Stir-Fried Water Spinach with Chili and Garlic: This is one of the seasonal dishes that depend on the vegetables. We tried the water spinach or Ong Choi, English pea sprouts, or cabbage. They were all very fresh and cooked perfectly. When these dishes appeared on our table, the veggies were still shiny green and crunchy, never over cooked. One important note here, they were well picked over. We can tell the attention and care that the chefs have put into these dishes.
We have been dining here on a weekly basis for many years. China Village is truly the “everyday” restaurant for its distinctive, authentic, and innovative Sichuan cuisine. So, for you daredevils out there, try the real thing and add some good spice to your dining experience!
Occupation: Stage Lighting
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Pacific Café
Reviewed China Village: Wednesday, August 16, 2006
It was nice to get out of the San Francisco fog. It was a warm and sunny day in Albany. We found parking easily, even though it was 4 pm. It was a large and spacious restaurant but there was only one other couple dining there at that time of day. In the absence of vocal chatter, the loud hum of the aquarium pump and refrigerator cabinets was distracting. We had ample room for our food on the glass-topped table and the waitress was ready to serve us at any time. The menu was copious, with 218 choices in their repertoire!
We asked the waitress about MSG in their appetizers and were alarmed to discover that everything had been pre-prepared with MSG. We declined the appetizers. Although we were reassured that our entrées could be made without MSG, our food arrived too quickly for us not to have doubts. Our suspicions were confirmed when we both got headaches shortly after leaving. I ordered the Village Specialty with Lamb and Cumin, which the waitress said was popular. What arrived was a large pile of shredded meat and the rice was fluffy, not sticky, and was difficult to handle with plastic chopsticks. My sweetie ordered Chicken Chow Fun, which consisted mostly of noodles, one piece of broccoli, and very little chicken. The portions were huge but simplistic. We decided against dessert and walked down the street for some ice cream. My favorite thing about my meal was their selection of fine California wines. I had a Sterling Merlot with my lamb.
We know of better Chinese restaurants to recommend to our friends.
Occupation: Finance Editor
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Chez Nous
Reviewed China Village: Monday, August 21, 2006
Okay — wow. China Village is a whirlwind of flavors, colors, courses . . .sort of controlled chaos. I really enjoyed it, though not every dish was to my liking. There were four of us (adults, anyway, and they were fine with us bringing the stroller in for our son, and gave us a huge table to accommodate the extra space). All four friends who aren’t shy about sharing, we tried to sample as much as we could, since none of us had been here before.
Let me first say that the staff was friendly and very kind to recommend dishes to us. They made sure we were okay with spicy (WE ARE), and were extra careful to ensure that the spice levels were appropriate. I wonder if they’d have been as communicative if the place were crowded, but as we were one of only four parties, they paid us plenty of attention.
They started us off with a small dish (amuse bouche?) of what was kim chee or some offshoot — a spicy, marinated cabbage. One of the best-paid dishes of the night was the very first one they brought: the tofu with peanuts. The smooth texture of the tofu went perfectly with the crunch of the salty peanuts and green onions. It was really nice. The other appetizer was also great, the cold rabbit was spicy and chewy, tasting of what we thought was star anise.
The beef dish was one that the host had recommended, and I’m not entirely sure what it’s called on the menu. It was spicy with chilies, but maintained its excellent flavor through that spice. Similarly, the duck was really good, and hot. It pulled from the bone with ease and had a lot of underlying flavor. It was probably my favorite of the main courses. The braised pork was not really something that wowed me — it was okay, but not really to my taste. The bok choy that was stewed with it was tasty, though. Overall, my dining companions liked it much better than I did.
The sesame fry bread was fantastic; a dense, chewy bread that also incorporated flavors you’d find in fried onion cake or similar. It was an interesting choice for a starch with the meal; we got it instead of rice as recommended by the host.