Sunday, April 27, 2008

Not Gourmet... but Okay

When a restaurant names itself Gourmet, it's really setting itself up for doubt. I mean, it's like calling yourself Super Intelligent Hottie. No one is going to buy it. Case in point: Szechuan Gourmet. (ha, right).

I ordered from Szechuan Gourmet awhile back. No surprise, I got pan fried pork dumplings as an appetizer and as my main, Ten Ingredients Rice Angel Hai Mei Fun. The food overall was okay. I ordered delivery, so by the time it arrived, everything was luke warm and the dumplings, which appeared to have been pan fried were soggy. They weren't bad though, flavor-wise. The skin was thin, the way I like it. The pork was kind of plain, but not bad and not incredibly greasy.

The Ten Ingredients Mei Fun was pretty good. I feel like there were only 7 ingredients (scallion, pork, chicken, egg, carrots, noodes, sauce -- does that count?), but it was pretty decent overall and there was a huge portion.

A coworker ordered the Szechuan Pork Dumpling with Chili -- these were actually quite good; more like Wontons but more flavorful than the ones I had. The only issue was there was a TON of garlic. Not good for the workplace.

Overall, okay. I may have been more impressed if the place were just called Szechuan House.

Still Recovering...But Man Was It Good!

Last weekend, my family came into town. As with every visit, the weekend of gluttony began with a stop at Joe's Shanghai. If you've never heard of it, Joe's -- located on a tiny street in Chinatown -- is famous for it's soup dumplings. And deservedly so, these babies are freaking fantastic. People literally line up down the block to wait for a table and when you sit down, before they even bring you water, they ask how many orders of soup dumplings you want. But before I detail them further, let me back up.

When we arrived at Joe's, we were told there was a 20-30 minute wait, so we decided we'd be efficient about it and choose what we wanted to eat while we waited. By this time, we were all pretty hungry, so it's easy to see why we ended up ordering so much. ..

First, came the order of pan-fried pork/chive dumplings. These were greasy, semi-thick skinned. I wouldn't say they were great, but they were pretty good and I was hungry. Flavor-wise, there were a lot of scallions in them and the skin was a bit thicker than what I normally like, but they were nicely browned.

Next came the scallion pancake. I wasn't able to snap a photo until 3/4 of it was gone. It was pretty good -- satisfyingly greasy. Nice crisp texture.

Next came the "Turnip Cake." This was not what we were expecting at all. Turnip cake in my mind is typically a pan-fried slice of a "cake" that has been made of ground turnip, rice flour, sometimes Chinese sausage. This was really weird. It was flaky on the outside and filled with thinly cut strips of turnip. Not bad, but a little bland and not at all what any of us really wanted.

Next came the vegetables. I actually don't know what kind of vegetable this was, I think it's called Chinese Water Vegetable? It was actually really good. Very garlicky, nicely seasoned.

And at last, the soup dumplings -- these actually arrived somewhere between the first two items in order, but in ranking they far exceeded anything else on the table. My mom ordered 4 orders. Each came with 8 soup dumplings. And by the way, there were only 5 adults eating.

There are 2 kinds of soup dumplings at Joe's: pork and pork with crab. They are both amazing and decadent. The pork and crab, however, is definitely a few levels richer than the pork... I'm not sure why or how. The way to eat these is to take the tongs and lightly pinch on the top part of the dumpling -- where all the pinched dough is. Pull up gently and place in your soup spoon. Next, while balancing the dumpling in your spoon, pierce a small hole in the skin with your teeth and let the spoon capture the soup. Literally there is soup inside these things and if you lose it, you lose half the experience. You then slurp the whole thing up and enjoy.

These things are an unforgettable experience for someone who loves dumplings -- maybe even for someone who doesn't. But when you go, just order the soup dumplings and maybe some vegetables. That'll be enough, trust me.

Side Note:
After this was a dish of pan fried noodles and seafood. I didn't get a photo because I was already feeling a little nauseous at this point from over-eating!

Additional Note: Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown and in Flushing are the ones to go to. The Midtown location is not nearly as good and pricier.

The Other Japanese Place

A few weeks back, I posted about "That Japanese place by the other Japanese place by the Library." Well, this post is about the "other Japanese place," Cafe Zaiya.

Cafe Zaiya is a small take-out spot that offers sushi, bento boxes, mayo-laden sandwiches, salads with interesting dressings like Thai Peanut and tons of delicious-looking Japanese pastries, most notably Beard Papa cream puffs (YUM) and the mochi donut (more about that in another post). It is CONSTANTLY packed during lunch hours. And it's no wonder. It's super-cheap and pretty decent. I usually have the Salmon Teriyaki Bento, which comes with an assortment of interesting sides like hijiki, eggplant, sometimes potato salad, sometimes small pieces of fried chicken (which are fatty and not so good). However, the other day when I stopped in, I decided to go for the Mahpo Tofu... and I'm glad I did. Mahpo Tofu (also spelled Mapo Doufu) is made up of soft tofu and ground pork in a fermented black bean chili sauce. The tofu is really soft, so if you're not into that, I'd avoid it, but the flavor is good. The Mahpo at Cafe Zaiya is served in a bowl over rice with a couple of pickled daikon radishes on the side. It's a bit lighter in flavor than the Mahpo I've had in restaurants or even the one my mom makes. It's topped with a few scallions and has a slight gingery taste with a nice sesame oil flavor underneath. For under $5, it's an insanely good deal. Definitely recommended!

Note, if you're interested in making it yourself, here are a few Mahpo Tofu recipes:
Epicurious: Ma-Po Tofu
Cooking Light: Ma Po Tofu
All Recipes: Ma Po Tofu

I can't vouch for any of them, but they look pretty good!