Sichuan and Mandarin that tastes like home
From the first bite, my wife, JingJing, pronounces her comforting bowl of noodles hen didao authentic. “You don’t often see this in restaurants because it’s so simple and homey. If I was sick and staying home, this is what my mom would make,’’ she says. I’ve eaten her mother’s delicious cooking in China’s Hebei province, and this dish indeed has the fengwei, local flavor, going for it.
That compliment brings a proud smile to Fu Wen Cai, the chef at the awkwardly named One of the Kind, the newest entry in the Asian food court at the Hong Kong Supermarket in Allston. “When I cook, I use my heart. Every dish is a little different every time I make it,’’ Fu says, explaining in Mandarin that everything is made from scratch, with no bottled sauces.
Fu’s caring hand reveals itself in the jiaozi, homemade dumplings ($6.99-$7.99) that show up on the menu in five varieties, four steamed and one pan-fried. Fu makes the skins for each separately, the filling dictating the hardiness and flavor of the wrapper. These are the only dumplings I’ve had stateside that match those from the little dumpling house I used to frequent while living in Beijing. Too many use a heavy, doughy wrapper, or one so thin that it falls apart. Fu’s dumplings are juicy inside their perfect little coats. For takeout, ginger-vinegar-soy dipping sauce containers are wrapped in a plastic bag to avoid spillage.
To-go might be the best option. The food court space once housed a used exotic sports car dealership, and suffers a curious atmospheric vortex that makes opening the doors a windy tug-of-war. It’s become a game of mine to sit where I can watch the comedy theater of people wrestling with the suction-cup doors. Once inside, a drafty chill forces most customers to keep coats buttoned up as they perch on wobbly plastic seats. Thankfully Fu’s menu transcends the room.
Like the Beijing Style Noodle ($5.99) that brings back childhood memories for my wife, most of the menu has a homespun character. A favorite House Special Pork ($11.99) imparts a cozy warmth with smoky, thick-cut roasted slabs of fatty pork and baked potato wedges in a barbecue sauce with sticky rice. Pork with chili sauce ($10.99) features very tender chunks of the meat and a fiery sauce that leaves your lips tingling.
A whole Sichuan-style fish ($17.99) is rich, golden brown, fried in hot pepper oil and nestled in wood ear mushrooms and crumbly bits of ground pork. Fragrant and filling, Homemade Meat Ball in Hot Pot ($7.99), is pork meatball soup with glass noodles that transports me back to all the little mom-and-pop restaurants I’ve ever eaten at in China. The meatballs are moist and steamy, delicate and satisfying.
One of the Kind is one of the few places that serves yang rou chuan, cumin lamb on skewers, a street food staple throughout China. Traditionally cooked over charcoals, yang rou chuan is a zesty treat served dripping and sizzling. Here, it’s in meatier chunks than typically found in China, and the taste is spot-on. You’ll have to ask for it, as it’s not on the menu. Only a small sign in Chinese characters alerted me to its availability.
This is owner Zhang Xiang’s first restaurant, but the cherubic 29-year-old is no stranger to the business. His dad had two restaurants in Qing Dao. “I grew up in restaurants since I was 6 years old,’’ he says. Zhang keeps his fare redolent of the tastes of home. “This kitchen is too small for rush jobs. I don’t want to sell General Gao’s chicken. I want to sell food I can eat.’’
That might be why the Sichuan and Mandarin eatery has become a second home to many. Zhang sees some customers every day, sometimes twice a day. Homesick foreign students don’t seem to mind the plastic chairs and drafty chill. You shouldn’t either.
Lane Turner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.