Art and I dropped by Sichuan River for a quick lunch on a cold, rainy Saturday. It was my idea, because I was jonesing big-time for a steaming bowl of mapo doufu (Sichuan style spicy bean curd with minced pork), which, to me, is the ultimate comfort dish for a miserable weather day, and the true, no bullshit test of a Chinese restaurant’s skill level. I remembered that they had a good version, and Sichuan River is light years closer to our South Austin haunts than A+A Sichuan Garden way up on 183. Although the two restaurants feature different menus, they have a common provenance.
Mapo doufu at most restaurants is a poorly conceived imitation of the real dish, so I have to be really careful where I order it, or I’ll receive the bland dreck that I expect. It is a lot like hot and sour soup. Back in the day, when most American Chinese restaurants featured egg drop and won ton soup, if you found hot and sour soup on a menu, you could bank on it being a dish that would be cooked to order. Not that many Americans knew what hot and sour soup was, and when you found it on a menu, you could expect a large bowl of freshly made soup, with a rich, porky stock loaded with golden needles, cloud ear fungus, shredded pork, bamboo shoots, garlic, ginger, scallions, black vinegar, Sichuan preserved hot bean paste and fermented chile paste, tofu, and velvety egg drop. On top you could expect a puddle of aromatic sesame oil and minced scallion. It was rich and complex, spicy and sour.
Let the average American learn about it and start asking for it, and the dish immediately gets dumbed down. Make it one of three varieties of free soup added to the lunch special, and the soup gets dumbed down even further, ending up a vapid broth made with soy sauce, with a few bamboo shoots and egg drop, and a dash of black pepper and vinegar. It really is criminal the way that one of my favorite soups has been degraded over time, and inconceivable that it is now one of the most difficult Chinese soups to find properly made at a restaurant. Much like mapo doufu, it has been subjugated by the mediocrity of the average American palate. I had hoped that Sichuan River’s version of hot and sour soup would relive the old-school glory of what the soup was meant to be, but their version was only slightly better than the competition’s. Same with A+A, Asia Café, and Sichuan House; they all have substandard versions of hot and sour soup, and contribute to it being a throwaway dish now, which is a real pity.
Moving on, our pan fried dumplings were exceptionally good, with slightly chewy and nicely browned handmade wrappers encasing a rich, well-seasoned pork filling, accompanied by a nicely balanced soy-ginger dipping sauce. Their version of hot chile oil with mala (Sichuan peppercorns) is delicious, so no complaints at all in the dumpling department. We opted for a big steaming bowl of their mapo doufu, requested “spicy”, and what appeared was a cauldron of all that the dish should be. Thickened rich pork stock reinforced the spicy sauce, with ample amounts of minced pork, fermented black beans, and lots of umami-rich, fermented Sichuan chile bean paste. It is a paste made from fresh “two golden strips” chiles (erjin tiao) and fava beans (not soy beans, as many believe) which is then aged and fermented. The best and most famous paste is made in a town on the outskirts of Chengdu named Pixian. The fresher the sauce is, the redder the color will be. Paste which is aged and fermented the most will acquire a purplish hue. Generally the sauce is aged between 3 and 5 years. The sauce goes by the name Sichuan chili bean sauce, chili bean paste, toban djan, and toban jhan, and is available in cans, bottles, ceramic jugs, and plastic pouches. Good brands are Chuan Lao and Sichuan Dan Dan but they can be hard to locate. Lee Kum Kee or the brand that comes in the 6 ounce blue can are acceptable if that is all you can locate, but they lack the fermented funkiness and the heat of the real deal bean paste. Overall, I would rate Sichuan River’s version just slightly less than the superior version produced at A+A Sichuan, which is very high praise indeed. It is deliciously done at the River.
ChongQing Mala Chicken
We also ordered CK 17, ChongQing Mala Chicken (AKA LAzi Ji), which is a classic Sichuan dish of marinated chicken that is first fried in oil, and then dry stir fried with lots of garlic and Sichuan chiles. The version here substituted Sichuan chile paste for the whole chiles, and we loved their version. We both remarked about how tasty the dish was, and it disappeared way too quickly. Highly recommended. We also ordered a platter of Shanghai Mixed Meat Noodles, which could have easily been omitted. It was nothing special, and paled in comparison to the dumplings, mapo dofu, and the chicken dish. This has been my second time to eat here since it changed over to Sichuan River and I am absolutely delighted to have a southside Chinese restaurant that serves an admirable mapo doufu.
4534 W Gate Blvd, Ste 105
Mick Vann ©
Mick Vann ©