To truly experience a Chinese dinner, gather up some friends and dine family-style, because one dish cannot sum up the thrilling ride and dazzling fu he wei, the complex flavors, of Sichuan cuisine.
Peter Chang China Café's 80-item menu makes that ride possible. I suggest ordering at least one mild, one sweet (or sweet and sour), one hu la scorched chili, and one ma la dish. The simultaneously hot (la) and numbing (ma) characteristic is the hallmark of Sichuan cooking. It's the result of marrying chilies with Sichuan peppers, the fruit of the prickly-ash bush that creates a tingling, buzzing sensation on your lips and tongue, whose antidotes are something creamy or sweet, not water.
Located in the same Short Pump strip mall as a Wal-Mart, Peter Chang's is bright and pleasant with pastel walls, photos of Chinese landscapes and silk flowers on ledges, along with colorful silk butterflies suspended from the ceiling. Reservations are advisable; on a recent Tuesday night the dining room was packed and a dozen diners were waiting outside. A note on the window indicates the restaurant is suspending takeout orders for now.
The wine and beer menu is chosen to pair well with spicy dishes. Suggestions are listed on the wine menu, which is helpful because the young wait staff seems lacking in wine or beer knowledge when we ask specific questions. Otherwise, servers are efficient and informative.
We begin our feast with coriander fish rolls ($6). The finger-sized spring rolls arrive piping hot. The crispy skin shatters upon biting, releasing a delicate aroma of cilantro, scallion, ginger and garlic, with the soft-fleshed fish providing a creamy canvas.
Within a few minutes, our orders arrive in a flurry when the dishes are ready. Chopsticks diving to pick up meat and veggie morsels, forks twirling around slippery, tasty dan dan noodles ($6), rib soup ladled into smaller bowls, rice scooped onto plates, hands tearing apart scallion bubble pancakes — we dine as Chinese families do, in organized chaos.
The seafood and meats in the hot and numbing combination hot pot ($18) glisten with red chili oil and immediately put my mouth on fire, but almost instantly the Sichuan pepper's lemony tang and its brief and weird cooling sensation flood my senses, awakening every taste bud. It's a curious sensory overload I'm addicted to.
I soothe my palate with velvety tofu with vegetable in clay pot ($10) with a mild garlic sauce, soft tofu strips, sweet Napa cabbage and carrots. Sipping the rich broth of pork ribs and wild mushroom soup ($13) brings me back to suppers at my grandma's and washes away the numbing sensation.
Delicately breaded bamboo fish ($16) arrive under a canopy of woven bamboo screen, an eye-catching presentation. What I'm after is hu la wei, a scorched-chili flavor. Chilies and Sichuan peppers sizzle in oil until the chilies are charred and smoky-sweet. Because I grew up eating spicy food, I should note that my heat tolerance has misled many dining companions, so please use caution when you attempt to eat these blackened chilies. It's a marvelous taste once you're used to the heat.
Perhaps have the sweet and sour sauced boneless whole fish with pine nuts ($18) at the ready to extinguish your tongue. The fish is impressive with its flesh scored to the bone and the filet twisted out, the resulting deep-fried fish resembling a blunt-tipped porcupine. Guangdong gulu duck ($18) yields richer flavor with a contrasting tangy sauce.
In scallion-bubble pancakes ($5), chef Chang shows his culinary prowess, elevating this Chinese street snack, usually a dense flatbread, into airy footballs. Next is the pleasant chewiness of dry-fried eggplant ($10). Lightly battered fingers of eggplant, with sweet and creamy insides, are tossed in a spicy chili and vinegar sauce and topped with cilantro. Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce ($10) is equally tender and melting, while the sauce isn't overly garlicky or spicy.
Steamed fish with cut spicy pepper ($18), the Sichuan classic known as shui zhu yu, is redolent with minced ginger, garlic and scallion. One of my husband's favorite dishes is cumin lamb ($20), a specialty he orders whether in China or here. Slightly chewy, pan-fried strips of lamb are doused with ground cumin, white pepper and scorched chilies, with fresh cilantro to temper the fiery meat. This version is one of the best we've had.
In an interview in The Washington Post, Chang and his partner, Gen Lee, say they plan to open more restaurants to fulfill Chang's "broader vision: to bring authentic Chinese food to an America still dominated by gloppy, soy-heavy dishes foisted off as the genuine article."
Buoyed by that interview, I stop by for a late lunch to satisfy a craving for kung pao chicken ($7.50/$13). When done properly, it represents Sichuan cooks' mastery of gong bao, sweet-sour-scorched chili flavor. I pin my hopes high, but the brown sauce is bland. Having worked in restaurant kitchens, I know that executive chefs rarely work the lunch line and that training a cook always to meet the chef's exacting standards is one of the most difficult tasks. I will order the kung pao chicken again, and maybe chef Chang will cook, or his crew will have mastered the breadth of Sichuan cooking. I can't wait to taste every dish on the menu and am working my way down the list. S
Peter Chang China Café ($)
11424 W. Broad St.
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.