Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Rabbit Rant


Belgian Giant breed of rabbit....THESE are the rabbits that we should be eating!

In today’s Austin Chronicle Food section, Anna Toon wrote an article concerning rabbits as food, and how several Austex restaurants are putting rabbit back on the menu. That article of course enraged the bunnypet bunch, who all started bitching about her article. They assert that rabbits were meant to be loving pets and should never be eaten, and wonder out loud, where normal people like me can hear them, what kind of a monster would even suggest such a thing. Those folks kinda got my dander up a little bit. I like eating rabbit, and don't really care what those people think.

Rabbit has been eaten by man ever since he was able to outthink the rabbit, which is no great feat. Rabbits have speed and camouflage going for them, but they are not blessed with superior intellect, their hide is easily peeled from their carcass, and they come in convenient, dinner-sized packages. Rabbits are a favorite foodstuff of pretty much anything that can catch a rabbit, from birds of prey, to any mammal fast or clever enough to subdue the wily beast.


We used to cook rabbit at the Clarksville Café back in the day, and every time we did, the customers would rave about it. It is a very healthy meat, high in protein, and low in fat. It tastes incredibly delicious when marinated and then braised, but if you don’t cook it correctly, it can end up a little on the tough side. My only complaint at the time was that rabbit cost too much for me to make much money on it, unless I charged what I thought was an excessive price. You were paying for a lot of bone weight, and you could get two good servings out of a carcass. The other thing is that rabbits can be kind of a pain to prep, because of the bones. The price per pound was high because there were very few folks raising rabbits back then for the restaurant trade.

Rabbits in Aussieland

Rabbits are eaten by pretty much every civilization worldwide, and have been for thousands and thousands of years. Rabbits are really easy to raise domestically, and they breed like, well, like rabbits. They don’t take up a lot of room, and their manure is ideal for gardening. They can make a disturbing scream when they are dispatched, but that is why the rabbit punch was developed, to rapidly kill the rabbit before he knows what’s coming. As a plus, rabbit fur makes a dandy hat or a pair of gloves.

Rabbit hunter in Australia

Let a few rabbits escape in an area where they have no predators, and they will take over. Back in the day, the old Austin airport runways were overrun with rabbits. Ask the average Australian how he feels about rabbits, and you certainly won’t hear any sympathy for the bunnies taking over that continent. Introduced in 1859, they grew to such numbers that they caused the extinction of native plant and animal species, and led to erosion and siltation of waterways. They out-competed 
 with livestock for graze, and just generally became such a pain in the ass that they built the world's longest fence to try to contain the little peckerwoods. Rabbits still cost the Australian government $600 million annually, even today. 

So the bunnypet bunch can bitch all they want to about restaurants serving rabbit, and food writers writing about restaurants serving rabbit, but we all know that if we don’t eat those tricky bunny bastards they will overpopulate and leave us in an ecological wasteland. You don’t want to eat rabbit? Fine, don’t eat any. You start telling me what I can eat, then we got a problem. Personally, I loves me a plateful of bunny. Loves it.

Mick Vann ©


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Prickly Pear Cactus Points

The resplendent winter coloration of Ranta Rita Opuntia (O. gosseliniana var. santa-rita)
sold in the nursery trade as an ornamental

Photo from

Researchers tell us that the prickly pear cactus was one of the earliest food crops, with Mesoamericans cultivating Opuntia ficus-indica more than 9,000 years ago. Today in South Africa, the Maghreb, Sicily, and South, Central, and North America the cactus is being grown as a food stuff, as cattle feed, and for the intensely colored, flavorful fruit, known in Mexico as tuna. The Mexican word for the prickly pear cactus, nopales, is based on the ancient Nahuatl nohpalli.

Prickly pear cactus are farmed around the world
Photo by

Nopales are strips or cubes cut from the pads of prickly pear cactus; 114 different species grow in Mexico. They are sold as spineless, peeled pads in Hispanic markets, and can be used raw or blanched (too much cooking and they get mucilaginous, like slimy okra). Bottled or canned versions packed in brine are available in Hispanic markets and some groceries. These should be rinsed in warm and then cold water, and drained before use.

Nopales, ready to blanch, at the mercado
Photo from

For fresh nopales, obtain tender young pads about 4 inches long and ⅛ inch thick. Larger ones will be tough and have a papery skin that must be removed before using. Remove all of the small spines on the pads with the blade of a knife. It is easiest to hold the pads with folded-over newspaper or tongs to prevent getting stuck by the thorns while processing. Cook briefly in boiling, salted water until just starting to get tender but not slimy (see cooking method, below). To prepare the fruit, lay a prickly pear on a cutting board and cut almost in half lengthwise. Using a knife with a flexible blade, “filet” the flesh from the skin as you rotate the blade around the interior surface of the skin, much like you would a kiwi fruit.

Prickly pear fruit, or tuna
Photo from

Ripe tuna
Photo from

You can easily grow prickly pear cactus in your yard, and many ranchers in Texas consider the plant an invasive pest, but they provide a valuable habitat for many critters (including snakes, so use caution when harvesting). In times of extreme drought, ranchers burn the thorns off with propane torches as graze for their livestock. To grow your own, they require only good drainage and adequate sun. Nurseries sell desirable spineless and ornamental varieties, and varieties will soon hit the market that have been bred for larger, sweeter fruit. To grow the common local species you can just cut off a pad from a plant, let the cut surface scab over for a few days, and insert it into the ground. It will grow with a vengeance.

Different types of Opuntia fruit
Photo from

Typical ripe fruit interior
Photo from

The flesh of the pads is used in salads, in pico de gallo and salsas, with scrambled eggs, in tacos, with meats, and in other dishes. The fruit has a texture similar to watermelon, kiwi, or dragonfruit, and the sweet, tart flesh can be used in a similar fashion, or juiced and added to drinks (local soda company Maine Root makes a prickly pear fruit soda called “Pink Drink”). Prickly pear fruit also makes a spectacular sorbet. Health freaks will appreciate very high levels of Vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, and studies suggest nopales could help with diabetes and hangovers.

Huevos Revueltos con Nopales · Scrambled Eggs with Cactus Strips

Serves 1

The Northern states of Mexico are especially fond of nopales. The blanched or grilled pads are fantastic mixed with scrambled eggs, and then eaten as a breakfast platter, with beans, chile-dusted and browned diced potato, and tortillas, or you can just place the filling inside a hot flour tortilla for a classic Austex breakfast taco.

1 Tablespoon lard, bacon fat, duck or chicken fat, or butter
1 large or 2 small scallions, trimmed and sliced
1 large serrano chile, stemmed and julienned (seeds and ribs removed for less heat)
⅔ cup prepared nopales (see preparation method, below)
2 large eggs, scrambled
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 Tablespoons grated Chihuahua or Monterey jack cheese, for garnish
Salsa of your choice, as a topping

In a seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the lard. When shimmering, add the scallion and chile and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the nopales and sauté 2 minutes. Add the eggs, salt, and pepper, and using a heat resistant rubber spatula, scrape the eggs from the outside-in, just until the eggs are fluffy and set, but still moist. Place on a plate and garnish with the grated cheese, and top with your favorite salsa.

Ensalada de Nopales · Cactus Paddle Salad

Serves 4

Nopales make an excellent salad ingredient, and fresh shrimp, poached lightly in a chile-garlic broth, are excellent added to this salad.

1 ¼ pounds of blanched nopal strips
3 plum tomatoes, stemmed and diced
½ cup diced red onion
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 to 3 serrano chiles, stemmed and finely minced (seeds and ribs can be removed for less heat)
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
¼ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped
1 ½ Tablespoons lime juice
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 avocado, pitted and diced, for garnish
½ cup grated cotija or romano cheese, for garnish
Totopos (tostadas), for service

In a large mixing bowl combine the cactus strips, tomato, onion, garlic, chiles, oregano, cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and mix well. Taste for seasonings for salt and pepper and add to taste. Evenly divide the salad among 4 salad bowls, garnish with diced avocado and grated cheese, and serve immediately with fresh totopos. 

To prepare nopales: You can buy them brined in jars (which need to be thoroughly rinsed), but they are much better fresh. Look for prepped (thorns removed), firm paddles in the produce section of gourmet, specialty, or Hispanic markets. If you harvest and prepare them yourself, using tongs or gloves, take a paring knife and excise each group of thorns by slicing just under the surface. When both sides are cleaned of thorns, remove the outside edge, and cut into ¼ inch strips.
To blanch nopales:
1 ½ Tablespoons salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 ¼ pounds of nopal strips
In 4 quarts of boiling water over high heat, add the salt, baking soda, and garlic, stir well, and then add the cactus strips. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and cook until just starting to get tender, but not limp (about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on freshness). Pour into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process and rinse off any slime. Drain well and reserve.

Alternatively, prepare the pads as before and grill both sides over a burner or coals until the pad starts charring, turning yellowish, and starts to get tender. 
Cooked this way, they are called nopales asadosIn case you weren’t paying attention and got pierced with tiny thorns, take a piece of duct tape and lightly drag it across the skin, or put a dab of Elmer’s Glue on the thorns. When the glue dries, peel it and the thorns from your skin.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pambazo at the Happy Fruit!


Chorizo and potato pambazo at Fruta Feliz

Earlier this week an old pal of mine was in town from L.A., and we zipped over to Fruta Feliz to grab lunch. I like FF because they have fresh, authentic, handmade food, the prices are right, and it’s only a few minutes from Campus. They have every variation of Mexican fruit dish imaginable, and I enjoyed an especially delectable, tall, frosty, and refreshing agua fresca made with fresh pineapple and mango. Homeboy ordered tacos of chivo, picadillo (made with minced meat and not ground beef; their ground beef taco is called a “crispi”), and chicharrón on their handmade corn tortillas. All excellent, by the way. I went for delicioso tacos of chivo (luscious shredded goat), and picadillo, both topped with the requisite onion and cilantro. They had three dynamic and tasty salsas that day: a fiery red chile with a bit of chile de arbóI, the standard taquería green with avocado, and a very piquant jalapeño-serrano fresh green chile sauce that sizzled the hair right off of my tongue.


Homeboy's tacos

I also ordered a pambazo, a less well-known sandwich here in The City with the Violet Crown, but one that is a big favorite all across Mexico. The happy fruit taquería makes a nice version, using a bun with exceptional flavor and softness, to go with that crispy, guajillo chile-anointed crust. They offer several filling variations, and I chose the classic potato and chorizo, which was delightfully delish.

Picadillo left, and chivo (goat) right

This is a fantastic sandwich that more folks need to know about, so I’ve included a recipe from my upcoming eBook,
Favorite Dishes from Regional Mexico, Texas and the Border, and New Mexico

Pambazos · Guajillo Salsa-Dipped Potato and Chorizo Sandwiches

A pambazo (also spelled panbaso, pambazo, and even banbaso) is a type of torta. It’s too big and hearty to be an antojito, although on occasion, slider-sized versions of pambazos, called pambacitos, are made for use as appetizers at parties. The name comes from pan bajo, or “low-class bread”, a reference to a bread made from the lowest grade of wheat flour during the days of Spanish occupation (the Spaniards in New Spain were exceedingly class-conscious). It began as a meal for the commoner and the laborer, made from the dregs of the mill.

The bun itself is also known as pambazo, and is a hamburger bun-sized soft roll shaped like a football (an American football). They are typically made by the local bakeries, or panaderías, and the bakery will usually offer warm pambazos to sell as well. The sandwich has some regional variations but they are minor. In some regions the bottom half gets a schmear of refried beans topped with longaniza or chorizo sausage and extra sauce instead of just crema fresca and the potato-chorizo filling. In Veracruz it typically gets a filling of black beans, queso fresco, tomato, pickled jalapeño, and chipotle powder.

The pambazo dominates in the center of the country (especially Veracruz, Puebla, Michoacán, and D.F.) but you can find them north to south. It is typically made with a doughy pambazo roll that is dipped in guajillo chile sauce and then fried on a flattop griddle in some lard to seal in the chile flavor on the outside, until the exterior gets crunchy while the interior remains moist and soft. Think of it as a lard-griddled French-dip. Some cooks stuff it before it gets fried, so that the cheese gets completely melted, and some stuff it after the frying, but the typical filling is chunky potato and chorizo, topped with shredded white cheese (queso fresco, panela, quesillo, Oaxaca, asadero, etc.). Some cooks add an extra bit of sauce to the potato mixture, to punch up the flavor. Some vendors try to economize by adding extra crema in place of the cheese, but the sandwich really needs the richness of the cheese to go with the potatoes.  Add some onion slices, shredded lettuce or cabbage, and a bit of salsa, and you have an appetite-filling behemoth.

The pambazo is eaten any time of the day, and it is sold by street and market vendors, by some taquerías, and by torterías, or sandwich shops. This sandwich really needs to be eaten hot, so if it is sold para llevar, or “to-go”, they’ll wrap it in foil to keep it warm. Since it is messy because of the chile sauce on the exterior, it really needs to be wrapped in foil so that you have a way to keep your hands clean while eating it.

Guajillo Chile Sauce                                       Makes about 2 ½ cups
15 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 plum tomatoes
½ medium white onion, cut horizontally
3 large cloves garlic
2 cups chicken stock
½ teaspoon comino

Potato and Chorizo Filling                             Fills 8 pambazos
1 pound red-skinned or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced ½-inch
Hot water to cover by 1-inch
¾ teaspoon salt
1 pound Mexican chorizo, homemade if possible (casings removed if necessary)
1 small white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh serrano chile, or 2 to 3 minced chipotles en adobo
Pinch crumbled dried Mexican oregano (optional)
About 2 teaspoons lard, bacon fat, or vegetable oil, if necessary

¾ cup crema fresca
1 ½ cups shredded queso blanco (quesillo, Oaxaca, panela, queso fresco, etc.)
½ cup thinly sliced white onion
2 cups thinly shredded young green cabbage or romaine lettuce
Aluminum foil, to wrap the bottom half of the sandwich
Fire-roasted avocado and tomatillo salsa verde, for service

1. For the guajillo chile sauce, heat a comal or skillet over medium heat and briefly dry-toast the chiles until they are fragrant; do not scorch. Place the chiles in a small pan with the chicken stock, bring just to a boil, turn off the heat and cover, and let sit until softened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic on the comal or dry skillet until softened and lightly charred. Add the soaked chiles and chicken stock, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and comino to a blender and puree. Place a sieve over a large bowl and pour the sauce through the sieve, forcing as much of the pulp through as possible, while excluding any seeds. Reserve for dipping the pambazo buns.

2. For the potato and chorizo filling, bring potatoes, water, and salt to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and cook potatoes until just starting to get tender, about 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and reserve.

3. Put the chorizo in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring and breaking up the chorizo, until completely cooked and lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Add the onions, garlic, chile, and oregano (if using), along with lard if chorizo hasn't rendered enough fat. Cook while stirring and scraping until the onions are translucent and soft, about 6 minutes.

4. Add the potatoes and cook until the potatoes are hot and have absorbed some chorizo fat and other flavors, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reserve hot for filling pambazos or tacos.

5. To prepare and assemble the pambazo buns, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of lard or vegetable oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Using a hand placed inside a disposable plastic glove or plastic bag, submerge the pambazo bun under the sauce for about 8 to 10 seconds. Remove and drip dry for a few seconds, and place bottom-side down in the skillet. Cook the bun until starting to brown, while pressing down with a spatula, and then turn over, repeating on the other side. Tilt the buns upright, so that they lean against each other, and cook each side until browned. You should be able to cook 3 to 4 buns simultaneously. Remove to paper towels to drain, and repeat with the remaining buns, until all are dipped and fried.

6. For assembly, slice the sauced and fried buns about 2/3rds of the way through, horizontally. Spread 1 ½ tablespoons of the crema fresca on the bottom bun and top with evenly divided amounts of the potato and chorizo filling. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the remaining sauce over the filling, and top with 3 tablespoons of the shredded cheese.  Add a few slices of fresh onion and ¼ cup of the shredded cabbage or lettuce, and then wrap the bottom half of the torta in aluminum foil. I prefer the tomatillo-avocado green sauce on the side for service, but a chipotle salsa, or a fire-roasted red salsa works fine also. Serve immediately.

For the buns, bolillos, teleras, hamburger buns, or Kaiser rolls can be substituted, but they are not nearly as good as a torta made with the genuine pambazo bun. The best way to dip the bun in the chile sauce is to use your hand, covered with a disposable kitchen glove or plastic bag.

For the guajillo chile sauce, you can use any dried chiles you like, but guajillo chiles are the standard. I like to add several chipotles to amp-up the heat level just a bit and add a bit of complex smokiness. Ancho, pasilla, pulla, cascabel, and mulatto chiles can be substituted for the guajillos, or used in combination with the guajillos. 
If you are extremely lazy, or pressed for time, a canned or bottled red chile enchilada sauce can be used instead of the guajillo sauce.

For the potatoes, you may prefer to omit the fresh chile and substitute 2 or 3 minced chipotles en adobo, or powdered jalapeño or chipotle chile instead. For even richer flavor, omit the salt and boil the potatoes in chicken stock (which can be saved for soup stocks).

Mick Vann ©

My previous Chronicle review:

La Fruta Feliz
3124 Manor Rd.; 512-473-0037


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Overboard at the Deckhand Oyster Bar

The Deckhand Oyster Bar
500 Parker Dr., Round Rock
(512) 368-3379

So last (rainy, wet) weekend I somehow became intrigued by The Deckhand, a seafood shack and oyster bar in Round Rock that has Northern Thai owners. They have a few Thai items on the menu, so I thought that R and I might go and sample a few things for late lunch-early dinner on Saturday afternoon. We were leaning towards a Thai place in Georgetown, but they didn’t open until 5pm and we were both starving, so the choice was made. The Deckhand is technically on Parker, south of TX 45 and just west of IH 35, but when they put in TX 45, it chopped off Parker. So, to get there, you take the La Frontera exit off of the westbound TX 45 or frontage and do the turnaround lane to go back heading east; Parker will be the first big street on the right. You enter the restaurant into a long U-shaped bar filled with neighborhood beer types and a flat screen with a round ball game in progress, and the dining room is a little farther down. Both the bar and the dining room were pretty full when we were there, and the crowd was diverse, from blue collars to techies to a few starched collar types. Oddly, there was an abundance of feral kids. And the tables are all placed way too close together for the bulk of the Deckhand’s generously proportioned customers.

Spring rolls

We started with an order of Shrimp Spring Rolls ($4.99), which presented us with two fat rolls filled with rice vermicelli, lettuce, carrots, cilantro, red cabbage, mint, basil, and split shrimp, all wrapped in rice paper, and served with a rich, Thai peanut sauce. Recommended and tasty.

Calamari strips?...and rémoulade?

We ordered calamari strips with Cajun rémoulade ($6.99) and got a basket of what looked like cheese sticks, but were actually panko-battered logs of what came from either a very large squid body that had been cut into perfectly proportioned strips, or more likely cuttlefish. I was never completely sure that it wasn’t a processed product that had been shredded, compressed, and extruded. It was too uniform in size and batter to not send up frozen food warning flags. I have no idea if this is a Sysco/LaBatt/US Foods frozen heat-and-eat item or not. It was not what I had expected, but at least it wasn’t little tough rings with the consistency of rubber bands, and after all, it did taste vaguely squid-like. I’m certain it was not hog bung, the new faux squid, so we have that to be thankful for. The Cajun rémoulade tasted a lot more like chipotle mayonnaise than any Cajun rémoulade I’m familiar with. So as popular as the dish seemed to be at tables around us, it was not a hit with us.

Moo ping

Moo Ping ($7.99, and listed as Grilled Boar [which it clearly was not]) was plump skewers of tender pork with a coconut milk marinade. All of the moo ping I’ve had before in Thailand was dark and funky (and addictive as hell), and served with a seriously assertive jaew sauce of fish sauce (and maybe a touch of pla ra or nam pu), lots of shallot or garlic and chile, cilantro, palm sugar, and tamarind. The delicious sticks sold by the moo ping vendor that hangs around the Thai Telephone Building, just east of Siam Square in Bangkok, is a classic example of what moo ping should aspire towards. The Deckhand sauce was basically an herb paste, and not very assertive. Pla ra is a funky fish paste made from fermented fresh water fish and salt, while nam pu is a fermented salted paste made from freshwater crabs. Both instantly identify an Isaan dish at first taste. Moo ping dipping sauce should definitely have a degree of intense, umami-laden funkiness. If this was indeed wild boar, it was the most tender, un-gamey boar that I have ever eaten. The dish was okay, but lacked the northern Thai Isaan funk that I was hoping for.

Seafood papaya salad

R ordered the Papaya Seafood Salad ($12.99) which did have a modicum of Isaan funk to it, and I did extract some dark crab legs which could have been from some nam pu that was not pounded-up in the mortar. Hard to say. The dressing was actually very authentic tasting and probably a little spicier than the requested “8 out of 20 total”. The dish was a little shy on the seafood side for the price, but all in all, not a huge disappointment.


I had a bowl of their Seafood Gumbo ($5.99) that was passable. The seafood was diced fish and small cocktail shrimp, the vegetables were the requisite Holy Trinity, there was a dollop of white rice in the middle, and the herbs were right, but it needed some heat and some dark and nasty roux to really submerge the taste into the swampy depths of a true Cajun Creole flavor palate.

Seafood noodle soup

I also ordered a bowl of their Deckhand Seafood Noodle Soup ($9.99) which was billed as rice noodles in a Thai tom yum talay broth, “with rice noodles with shrimp, fish, calamari, fish-ball, yellow onion, bean sprouts, mushroom, cilantro, tomato, green onion in Thai herb lemongrass (tom-yum broth)”. It was huge and contained the promised seafood and noodles, but the broth was a pale imitation of a true tom yum broth. It had little spiciness, and lacked the fragrant kiss of Thai lime leaf and lemongrass. As a bowl of seafood broth with noodles it succeeds, but as tom yum talay, it fails.

Catfish...note bizarre hushpuppy imitation objects, left

I also tried a one fillet plate of fried catfish ($8.99, for three fillets), which came with thin, uninspired frozen fries, and small, bizarre spheres of hushpuppies that had been cut in half before frying. Tiny little things they were, and once again, shaped too consistently to not be a frozen product which had been lopped in half. The catfish tasted fresh, but the cornmeal batter was too thick for my liking.

During the course of the meal we had four different servers, all of whom did an adequate job, but it was a little strange to see a busy restaurant floor that discombobulated. Maybe our table sat in between two sections and they couldn’t decide who got us. Who knows why we were waited on by committee. For a final assessment, I’d call it adequate although uninspired seafood served in large portions, at prices that fall just below the level that could cause alarm. For the residents of the vast apartment and condo land surrounding The Deckhand, it works just fine. For me, not so much.

Mick Vann ©

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mapo Doufu Attack!


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.

Mapo Doufu

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.

Shanghai Nodles

Sichuan River
4534 W Gate Blvd, Ste 105


Mick Vann ©