Cafe China: Some Say the World Will End in Fire, Some Say in Spice
Hello everyone! After three long years, this is our first Chinese review. That's super weird. So, today, we will be breaking that streak with a fantastic, one-Michelin Star, Chinese restaurant called Cafe China. Its interior is decorated to imitate a 1930's establishment, featuring Chinese portraits and old-fashioned decor. They specialize in Sichuan cuisine, a style that originates from the Chinese province of Sichuan. This cuisine is characterized by deliciously pungent flavors as well as the prolific use of both hot and numbing spices. The numbing feeling you get while eating Sichuan food comes from the unique flavor of the Sichuan peppercorn.
Before we start, I'd like to talk a bit about the Sichuan peppercorn. These little husks are packed with some impressive, long-lasting flavors. Its got a citrus and spice aroma. Actually, as I am writing this post, I am eating some of the leftover Chungking Red Soup that we'll talk about later. And, just to give you all the most accurate flavor descriptions, I am torturing myself with these small taste bombs as we speak. Here is my tale: The spice rushes through my mouth as my face turns slightly red. I try not to cry. After a few seconds, the numbing sensation takes over and I notice a strong, enduring lemon-like flavor. What a feeling!
Anyway, let's get back to talking about the food. Steph and I started with two small appetizers: scallion pancakes and baby cucumbers. At first taste, it's clear that this is no average Chinese restaurant. The food is sans MSG, the convenient umami booster and flavor steroid that is prevalent at many establishments. While there is nothing wrong with adding MSG to dishes, it should be consumed in moderation. Some people are sensitive to MSG as it can lead to headaches, nausea, and chest pains.
FUN FACT: MSG actually has less sodium than regular table salt. In addition, the umami flavor comes from the glutamate, an amino acid that is found in protein-rich foods. Adding glutamate to food will make it taste more savory. The beauty of MSG-free dishes, like the ones at Cafe China, is that the food tastes more natural. The baby cucumbers were delightful. I could probably have a bucket of this. The cucumbers were fresh, crisp, and explosive with juicy, garlic flavor.
Cafe China's scallion pancakes were thinner and crispier than its peers'. It did not feel oily at all, which is a blessing, as I usually feel pretty guilty after eating scallion pancakes.
Next, we had the Sichuan Style Cold Noodles. The flavor is absolutely elegant. Trust me, "elegant" is the right term to describe these noodles. You get a bunch of subtle tastes and feelings with this dish. The feeling moves from cold to hot as the spices activate your taste buds. In terms of seasoning, you experience a complex combination of soy, chili, salt, sesame, and vinegar flavors. It's invigorating!
Finally, the real spice came to the table. The Three Pepper Chicken was my selection (see first picture above). As you can tell from its name, it comes with three different types of pepper even though peppercorn isn't really a pepper. But, "Two Pepper and 1 Husk Chicken" doesn't sound as sexy. Anyway, as if one pepper wasn't enough, this dish was pretty hot. The chicken was great. They used dark meat so the chicken was tastier. It could have been a little bit less dry but I still liked it. The chicken was accompanied with three spices: red peppers, green peppers, and Sichuan peppercorn. That being said, this dish had a good balance of both hot and numbing spices.
Steph is fire-proof so she got the Chungking Braised Fish in Red Soup. The "Red Soup" was an accurate assessment of the dish because the soup looked like lava. I could feel the pain just looking at it. I imagine fire to taste like the dish.
The flavor was primarily that of chili oil and peppercorn, which paralyzed my taste buds for the next hour. It felt like I was melting. Regardless, I would recommend this dish to anyone and everyone. The fish had so been perfectly braised that it didn't fall apart in between chopsticks but still captured the spices in the soup. This is a fantastic representation of both the unique taste of Sichuan cuisine as well as their culinary expertise in creating such well-balanced dishes.