Over the years, I've received a lot of tempting invitations to fabulous events I couldn't attend. I've simply embraced the "no, thank you" reflex as one of the unfortunate yet requisite drawbacks of being a reclusive critic.
A recent invitation to a Szechuan New Year's banquet, though, organized by local members of the online gastro-club eGullet, got me to hesitate on the "yes" button a little longer than usual. True Szechuan food is such a rarity in this area, I wasn't fazed by the far-flung locale: Han Dynasty resides at the end of a poky drive up to Royersford. I'd heard great things about this authentic Chinese oasis, as well as its original sibling in Exton, from regulars in my Tuesday afternoon chats. So I could almost taste the numbing anise heat and toothsome chew of a good cold fu qi fei pian (fiery tongue and tripe salad) as I mulled the possibility.
Alas, I was away for the scheduled event, so temptation never quite burned as hot as the blue flame flickering beneath a dry pot stew. But after viewing the post-banquet food-porn photos and prose posted by eGulleteer Jeff Towne (a.k.a. "philadining"), I decided it was definitely time for my own food adventure up Route 422.
As we pulled into the unassuming strip mall, just a short way from the steaming twin towers of the Limerick nuclear reactor, I readied myself for a meal with enough of its own heat to power the wagon back to Center City.
I would not be disappointed - for the most part. What we found on my first visit to this pleasantly appointed room, a slate-wrapped contemporary space reminiscent of Wynnewood's Sang Kee, left me with mixed impressions.
There was some sensational Szechuan cooking. We spooned through a bowl of homemade pork-and-ginger dumplings in spicy oil that swirled with the rich sweetness of dark soy tinged with five-spice. I twirled toothsome hand-rolled noodles in a fiery Dan Dan sauce, a Bolognese-like Szechuan gravy that coated the noodles in crumbled pork, and the light creaminess of sesame paste tinted orange with chile oil.
There was a platter of the most intensely smoky tea-smoked duck I've ever eaten. The elaborately prepared meat (marinated, dried, smoked, braised, and then flash-fried to order) exuded a spice box of star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and fennel wrapped inside smoky wisps of jasmine tea and cedar. The "dry pot" of delicate flounder fillets, meanwhile, served in a mini-wok over a blue flame, blazed across my palate in an ethereal whoosh of peppercorns, chiles, and hot bean paste that obviously turned me into a beet-colored, smoke-blowing cartoon.
"Daddy," said my startled daughter. "You're really sweating! Why is your face red?"
The intoxicating pleasure-pain of a Szechuan meal at full throttle, with its numbing "ma la" heat, is hard to explain to the little ones. Aside from their love of Shanghai soup dumplings, they've yet to venture far beyond the more Americanized chestnuts of Chinatown menus.
But when we veered away from the Szechuan specialties toward this more familiar fare, something jarring happened. The service became indifferent and elusive. And the cooking took an awful turn, with some of the gloppiest, blandest General Tso's chicken I've encountered in a long time, oily scallion pancakes, and chicken-corn soup that was a luridly fake yellow hue.
What was going on?
After encountering the entertainingly frank owner Han Chiang at my second meal (yes, the dynastic young "Mr. Han"), I think I've gotten the message: sabotage. Han, 30, who routinely turns away patrons looking for the buffet and sticky-sauced combo platters featured by the previous occupants of his space, is forcing the issue of authenticity by aiming as low as possible on his menu's chop-suey-house classics.
"It's crap!" says Han of his own General Tso's chicken. "You couldn't pay me to eat that!"
His hot-and-sour soup? "Junk! Don't get that . . . even if it's better than anyone else's. . . ."
His tea? "I usually serve crap tea," he concedes. "But for you . . . the good stuff!"
Lucking into the privilege of Han's "good stuff," in this case a delicate Taiwanese green tea, is the key to making this trek worthwhile.
Seek out Han and let him know you crave the genuine article and he morphs into an impresario extraordinaire, expounding on the differences between two schools of Szechuan cookery (the elegant cold dishes of the Chengdu capital versus the pure hellfire hot plates of Chongqing); explaining the impetus for this remote second outpost of his empire (a growing Chinese community drawn to nearby Collegeville's pharma industry), waxing ambitious about plans for a branch in West Philly, and an immediate project to grow authentic greens this summer at a Lancaster farm.
Han will also signal chef Zhon Chi Wei, a former culinary instructor in Sichuan, to bring on a banquet of blog-o-dacious proportions.
Ours began with an array of cold dishes whose chilly temp belied the chile fire of their orange-hued seasoning - each one slightly different. There was a lip-numbing starting nibble of pickled broccoli stems and carrots to begin, followed by the textural treat of that fu qi fei pian, whose velvety tongue ribbons and frilly tripe strips were even better than I imagined.
The unusual Chengdu green bean noodles had a note of vinegar added to the spice, a tang that heightened the bouncy texture of this unusual translucent pasta made from powdered green beans. The sublimely tender chunks of rabbit had a touch of fermented black bean paste to cut the meat's grassy taste, but the beans also added a creaminess to its peanutty chile glaze.
There were some welcome respites from the spice. A Taiwanese-style West Lake soup brought a small dice of vegetables and ground beef to a velvety egg-drop broth that sparkled with white pepper. The crunchy snap of baby bok choy with chewy shiitake mushrooms was like a cleansing chlorophyll rinse.
There were other relatively mild dishes - frogs with pickled vegetables, braised pork belly, and a whole tilapia in hot bean sauce - but none impressed me enough to merit a reorder.
The rest of our meal, though, was dialed to an addictively vibrant Code Orange, and the appropriate taste-bud sirens were wailing with double happiness. The hot pepper chicken was a real brow-mopper, its crispy cubes of moist meat (triple-flash-fried, but not breaded) stoking the coals with dried and fresh chiles. The ma pao tofu contrasted the heat of its sauce with the custardlike softness of its silky bean-curd cubes.
Some of my favorites, though, layered other flavors inside the heat. The tea-smoked duck hit a new level of complexity when simmered in a dry pot mini-wok filled with beer, baby bamboo shoots, and hot bean paste. The cumin-crusted lamb I sampled at our first meal, a northern Chinese riff on Indian flavors, landed like a cumin pleasure bomb on my palate, and lingered for the entire trip back down Route 422.
So I missed the actual eGullet party that led me here. But it was the tastiest invitation - so far - that I haven't been able to accept.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Lucky 13 Pub in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.