Monday, July 2, 2007

Serious spices at Chung King Garden

Strictly speaking, this is a cooking blog, and as such should not contain restaurant reviews. But why impose arbitrary limits? This is a blog about good food, and learning about cuisines that are new to me and possibly to you, and believe me, this restaurant delivered on both counts.

Chung King Garden is in Philadelphia's Chinatown, a few convenient steps away from Market East Station. When we lived in New York, Joe and I loved to explore Chinatown on the weekends, but when I was diagnosed with a wheat allergy we stopped going, with heavy hearts. Now that I know it was a misdiagnosis, I'm thrilled to be able to eat my way through Philly's Chinatown.

This particular spot comes highly recommended by my friend Lynn, who grew up in Taiwan and loves spicy food. Chung King is known for super-spicy, authentic Szechuan cuisine. She suggested we try out Chung King and get lots of different dishes, and if you know me you know I'm not about to turn down an offer like that. So Lynn, my friend Joel, and my husband Joe and I met up last night and started ordering.

The menu is long and involved, with sections for dry-panned meats, water-boiled items, soups, etc. There's also a page at the very back with "American Chinese Food," which is clearly for the tourists. I don't know how Chung King's General Tso Chicken rates, and I don't care. This is Chinese food far above and beyond what corner takeout joints deliver.

Joel is a vegetarian, so we ordered a mix of meat and veggie dishes. Lots of the vegetable dishes here do contain meat, but when Lynn asked in Chinese, the servers were happy to leave it out.

Ma Po Tofu: I've had this dish in its gloopy American form, and wasn't impressed, but this was divine. Cubes of creamy, silky tofu came in a light but fiery orange sauce, with dry spices sprinkled liberally on top-- black pepper and anise, definitely, and I think possibly cloves as well. They left the pork out, and I'm curious what that would be like, but the dish certainly didn't suffer.

Quick Fried Lamb: Visually, this looks the most like what Americans expect: a meat stir-fried with vegetables and served with rice. The lamb was sliced thin and surprisingly tender for having been quickly stir-fried. There were fried pieces of garlic and ginger as well as bamboo, and some seriously tasty wood-ear mushrooms. The heat was slow but intense. (Joe had the leftovers for lunch today and says that it got even hotter overnight.)

Bok Choy with Mushrooms: A non-spicy dish. This was very simple, just bok choy, mushrooms, and a basic white sauce, but the ingredients were fresh and the mushrooms had a savory, deeply satisfying flavor.

Loofah: Yes, like the sponge. This dish wasn't on the menu, but apparently it's a special fairly often, and Lynn asked for it. This is the outer part of the live sponge, stir-fried in a light white sauce. It has the color and texture of a honeydew melon, but the taste is more savory and green-vegetable-like. Lynn, who's had it before, said it wasn't the best example she'd had-- it gets slightly bitter if it's not very fresh. We all ate and enjoyed it anyway, though.

Chicken with Spicy Peppers: This is the dish I'm still craving today, even though my body is punishing me for eating so much of it. I've never had such a flavorful, addictive variation on popcorn chicken! The dish is simply tiny breaded chunks of chicken meat and pieces of dried red chilies, apparently fried quickly at very high heat. There's no sauce, and there doesn't need to be-- you just pick out golden brown bits of fried chicken from their hiding places among the peppers. It's very hot, and absolutely impossible to stop eating, even when you are very full.

We washed everything down with $2 Tsingtao-- I'm not normally much for lagers, but this had a pleasant fruity quality and really matched the spicy food.

Oh, and the bill? $63, for four of us, alcohol included. Can't beat that. The service was on the slow side, but they were friendly and helpful. It's a clean, pretty, roomy restaurant, and we spotted a karaoke room in the back. And it didn't hurt to have such excellent company!

I'm definitely looking forward to going back and experimenting-- there are lots of creative soups (tomato and scrambled egg soup? I'm in!) and after a couple of Tsingtaos you might even talk me into trying some organ meats. Maybe. Either way, I need more of that spicy chicken, just as soon as my system recovers!

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