Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Sichuan Lunch

A couple of weeks ago, my wife picked up the latest edition of meets regional magazine, which seems to be aimed at semi-hip young men in the Kansai region. Just like me! No, actually for men quite a bit younger than me, who listen to cool music, dress funky, and like to eat a bit wild. I squeeze in because I’m male, in Kansai, and eat anything.

This issue was about spicy food. Now as I noted in passing a few posts back, the usual word for “spicy” is karai (辛い), which does mean “spicy” but not necessarily hot-spicy. So all kinds of Indian food qualify, as would pretty much any American barbecue, as does some very salty food like salt tempura. But mostly it does mean hot-spicy, and thus most of the restaurant reviews are of Korean, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Carribean, and so forth places that do fiery dishes.

This being a magazine for hip Kansai men, most of the entries are for Osaka, but there are some in Kyoto and I carefully copied out the addresses and found them on my little pocket atlas. (No mean trick, this: Japanese addresses can be pretty difficult to find anyway, but Kyoto addresses are often exceedingly difficult—so much so that our address for the post office isn’t the official government address, because it doesn’t include enough information to find us without having a good map and knowledge of the city, something apparently the government lacks. We spent an hour waiting for the guy in the ward office to figure out our official address, and in the end he got it wrong. But I digress.)

A week ago or so, we tried PURUDA, a Korean place up on Rokkōji-dōri, which was quite good but I forgot to take photographs. We only had lunch anyway, and you have very limited options for the lunch menu. I’ll go back sometime for dinner, maybe, although I’ve seem some much cooler-looking Korean places.

Today we went to the zoo, which is near Heian Jingu (平安神宮), the enormous shrine and garden up in the northeast. At the corner between the shrine and the zoo, just up from the main road, is Dragon Gate Chinese Restaurant (中華料理龍門, which I’d guess is locally read chuka-ryōri ryūmon), a Sichuan (四川) place with several branches, one of which turns out to be very close to our house.

Following the recommendation of meets magazine, I had the spicy beef noodles. My wife had a mapo doufu set lunch, which included a little soup, rice, and pickle, as well as a little deep-fried meat thing that we cannot identify. Sam was tricky here, because he said he wanted soup and rice, but they didn’t have any soups we thought he’d like much; we got him a slightly crab-flavored egg-drop soup, and that seemed to work out more or less fine. We also got some gyōza, steam-fried potsticker dumplings.

The noodles were excellent, and very good value. For 900¥ ($8.25) you get this big bowl of noodles with lots of pieces of meat, some vegetables, and a thick soup-stew. It’s very intense, spicy in the classic Sichuan fashion, based on a combination of dried chiles, black and white pepper, Sichuan peppercorn (花椒, Jap. 山椒 sanshō), chile oil, ginger, garlic, star anise, and salt. Sichuan peppercorn is slightly numbing on the lips, and somehow that helps make the chiles and the complex spiciness of Sichuan dishes more fragrant and exciting. As you eat these noodles, you keep thinking, “this is really awfully rich and heavy, and boy it’s spicy, and there is no way I’m getting through this whole bowlful—I’ll just have one or two more bites.” Then you do it again, maybe after having a little beer in between. This is brilliant college-student food: cheap, filling, and intense. For me, it’s great too, but I really shouldn’t do this often: it’s quite rich, and I don’t really need to get fatter, and besides, well, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s going to be kind of spicy-hot several hours later, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

The mapo doufu was good, I thought, though not the best I’ve had. The tofu itself was of course soft and creamy and flavorful, Kyoto being one of the centers of the world of tofu. But the sauce and garnish were also rich and complex, the whole Sichuan mala thing (numbing-spicy, 麻辣). I thought it needed something, but I’m not sure what, since the noodles were a lot to be getting on with and thus I didn’t have very much mapo dofu. We are not at all sure what the little bit of fried meat just to the right of the mapo dofu was; it was perfectly decent, whatever, but I'm a bit lost on this one. The soup was egg-drop (卵花), and the pickles were a fairly mild example of a classic Sichuan pickle that is a lot like kimchi but I think is made from the stalks of mustard greens, though I'm never sure whether terms like "mustard greens" really mean the same thing as what I know in America or are some sort of odd but standard translation-cum-paraphrase. In any event, the set lunch was good, but I'll have to try it (or at least the mapo dofu) again before I can make any pronouncements.

Sam claimed the crab soup was spicy, but I thought it was very mild, creamy, and elegant. Of course, there was no way I was going to be able to detect subtle spiciness in this, with what else I was eating, so I’m probably not the best judge. I’d guess it had a little more white pepper than he wanted. Certainly Maia liked it, squodged up with a bit of rice.

The gyōza were good, but nothing to write home about. I did find it interesting that the dipping sauce consisted solely of garlic, hot chile oil, and vinegar (rice, I think), with no hint of soy. In my extensive experience of gyōza (which I, having lived in Taiwan for more than a year, will always think of as jiaozi), soy is always sort of the foundation of the sauce, so this was new to me. Of course, on the bus home, it occurred to me that maybe you were supposed to add soy to this, as you have a soy sauce thing on your table already. I don’t know. It was fine, regardless, but as I say, nothing to write home about. You’ll note from the picture the standard Japanese way to serve them: you cook five or six pressed closely together in oil on a small nonstick fry pan, then add water about halfway up the sides and cover, and when the water boils off you pick them up, stuck together in a line, and serve them crispy-side up on an oval plate. I’ve never seen this in Taiwan, but everyone does it in Japan. I include here an example that wasn't from our lunch, but rather from "su-lin" photostream at Flickr, which is a pretty good representation of how they're usually presented at Japanese restaurants.

All told, Dragon Gate gets our thumbs up. It’s good Sichuan food, done well, at very reasonable prices. I’ll have to go for dinner some time and see whether the menu gets more extensive then, as is common, because I did think that the menu we saw was a bit short. In any case, if you like Sichuan food and are in Kyoto, they have four outlets, so try one.

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1 comment:

Maryellen said...

Lol. Love the blog. Nice link to OSF.