Saturday, April 4, 2009
Oh baby...last night we found a hidden gem in an East Bellevue strip mall. Before I share our secret, though, we need a little context.
Eight years ago, we'd barely been married a few months when we decided the time was right to head overseas. And not just a trip to Spain or France, but a jump over the other puddle to Asia. We spent a couple of weeks in "China-lite" Taipei acclimating, getting in our last movie, our last Starbucks, our last Costco (yeah, I was surprised at this one). Then a short flight to Hong Kong, and overnight stay in the Boy Scouts hotel.
The next morning we embarked on the last leg to our final destination...first crossing the border into mainland China via the train, then boarding a flight to the Sichuanese capital of Chengdu (Si Chuan means "Four Rivers"), a city of millions in the landlocked central province...the sweatbox of China. To some, this city would be intimidating enough. But it was not our final destination.
We had contracted to teach English in the Middle School/High School of She Hong, a teensy-by-Chinese-standards town of 30-40,000 people. A town built on the prosperity of the local distillery ToPai (Top Up) who's name appeared on the town's best hotel (the manager later photocopied every page of my Chinese/English phrase book), every city bus, and virtually everything else around.
A week after arriving we celebrated our first anniversary--the hosts brought out a birthday cake for me, not understanding our frantic gestures to explain an anniversary. Our guide inland left after a week, our time of sheltered cuisine (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, sauteed greens, non-innards meat parts) was over.
A boy (who was to become our favorite friend and student) accompanied us (along with the government type who tried to be our best buddy for a month or two) to our first restaurant experience. Corn kernels with chilies, fried dumplings dipped in a sauce so spicy I could barely stand it! Even my husband, who'd spent his teenage years dining on Korean fare, was sweating instantly. And of course, not a drop of water to wash it away. Only warm Sprite.
We quickly learned to order rice with our meals, although it wasn't customary to eat rice until after a meal in these parts---a way to fill in the cracks more than anything. But rice had the magical power to cool down our dragon mouths.
By the end of the first month we'd found our favorite dumpling shop. All shops were literally holes in the wall...a garage door open to the street. We were so obsessed with this dumpling store that we freaked out when we lost the slip of paper the name was written on. Our Chinese was non-existent and to make matters worse, my husband is Asian (not Chinese). Come to find out, Asians can't tell Asians apart in this neck of the woods. Everyone in town tried speaking Chinese to my poor husband. No one knew we were married at first---they literally though he was my useless interpreter who couldn't speak Chinese!
So we developed a new system. I learned as much as I could about how to order at restaurants and then I took the reins, so to speak. If I initiated conversations, they were much easier on my Chinese!
And so we began frequenting all the local restaurants. We almost never cooked (except breakfast which was an egg fried in our wok and some steam bread dipped in sweetened condensed milk). Soon, another restaurant emerged as a favorite...the Dragon Somethingorother. We were never quite sure of it's name. Once, while walking there, a little school boy literally walked into a pole due to his absolute astonishment at seeing me (the local rock star as the only white person in town).
But more about Dragon...there was this fish stew milky white with what I ascertained was lard, dumplings floating to the surface. A whole chicken simmering in a soup pot. These spicy noodles laced with a mouth numbing seed pod of some sort. And a gelatin-type thing topped with a chili mixture called Lian Fen (I could never pronounce this correctly!) that we shoved inside these little pita breads native to northern China. Tiny strips of potatoes fried with chilies. Beef braised with carrots so red that I mistook them for tomatoes at first.
And then there was the Hot Pot. Chengdu and especially it's sister city ChongChing are known for this dish, a signature dish of Sichuan if ever one existed. We were only introduced to this dish through friends dying to show us the "smoked salmon/clam chowder" of Sichuan.
An enormous pot of oil laced with, can you guess? Yes, red chilies. Lots and lots of them. The oil is heated over a burner right at your table. In fancier establishments, the table is custom-made to fit the bowl with the burner underneath. Then you choose your dinner...thin strips of beef, chicken, fish, fish balls, squid, veg like potatoes or cabbage, tripe, tongue, mushrooms and many many mystery ingredients that you just smile, eat, and assure your host that you love. The most exotic (identifiable) Hot Pot ingredient we encountered were sea horses (in Chengdu).
So, eight long and full years later, after 3 babies, 9 moves, several jobs, a few states...we still had not found a genuinely Sichuan-flavored dining establishment. In fact, my taste for Chinese food was so changed that I could barely stand the regular "Lucky Whathaveyou" joint in any town. Sweet-and-Sour Chicken had lost it's appeal (a flavor that we were told was created for Americans in the first place). My husband was disappointed with his attempt to eat Sichuanese in Bellevue.
Thank goodness for the FoodBuzz foodie blog dinner last month or I may have never known about this local secret! Last night, kid-free for the first time in a while, we cruised over to East Bellevue where on the corner of 148th and Main Street, in a very ugly strip mall lies The Szechuan Chef.
We nervously walked through the doors trying not to brace ourselves for further disappointment and were pleasantly surprised at the neat, clean, high-ceilinged, bright orange dining room. The tables were marble-esque and not at all that sticky unpleasant Asian restaurant feel! The service was quick, the menu quite thick.
We flipped straight to the Hot Pot page at the end and ordered 2 portions plus an order of those potato strips fried with chilies. The waiter seemed somewhat surprised that we didn't go for the "half spicy/half broth" version, but straight up spicy. (I got a sideways glance...)
When it arrived, oh, the aroma. So familiar. The spiciness traveling up through our nostrils and hitting us in the back of the throat. The fish balls were my favorite, yummy and salty. And there was this great peanut sauce that, although I never ate it in Sichuan, was really tasty.
By the end of our quiet consumption, we had decided that we might need to try their dumplings just to be sure that we love this place. The fried potstickers tasted great and even had the authentically flavored dipping sauce. The sauce wasn't as spicy as I remembered which could be due to my lesser quantity of tastebuds in my old age. (could I have lost that many?)
Anyways, The Szechuan Chef is a real as it comes. We can't wait to go back and try all of the other many dishes. It seems an endless variety came out of the kitchen. And I even saw a photo of what looked like Lian Fen--the gelatinous strips. We'll see if I get so lucky! If you like spicy and authentic, this should be your next stop. But, if sweet-and-sour chicken is as far as you go at whatever "Lucky China Garden Bamboo Dragon" you frequent, then this might not be your thing. But you really should give it a shot.