Szechwan slurpings in Oakland Chinatown

    What would you prefer to order, something whose name you don’t understand, or something whose name you do understand but the combination of ingredients is strange to you? The biggest problem we face at Chinese restaurants in Chinatown is that the waitresses don’t know much English, and we know zero Chinese. We can’t ask about the dishes and have to rely solely on the English description, if it is written, which leads to the second problem: all the descriptions are the same.

    Not just that. If you are not Chinese and have spent many years eating $7 Chinese buffets like me, you probably know that there’s hardly any difference between Szechwan chicken, orange chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and whatever chicken. Same goes for fried rice, chow mein, vegetables, and other edibles, which appear identical everywhere (unless it’s really bad). So imagine my excitement of spotting “tai lou mein” and “pickle and pork rice noodle soup” as I flipped through the menu at Szechwan Restaurant on 8th Street. We’ve never heard of those things.

    The tai lou mein is, unexpectedly, a bowl of noodle soup. (We thought we’re in for stir fried noodles.) It’s the same thick round egg noodle in chow mein, drenched in a very slightly corn-starchy sweet broth with fresh bamboo shoots, shrimp, pork, chicken, mushroom, carrots, and a cracked egg (which the waitress called “scrambled egg”), topped with green onions. It turns out a safe good bet. From a reliable source we learn that perhaps the pinyin transcription of the name should be da lou mein instead of “tai lou mein”.

    The pickle and pork noodle soup (榨菜肉絲麵 zha chai rou si mein) is my new love. Compared to da lou mein, it has far fewer visible ingredients, but the balancing of flavors and healthiness are superb. I’ve never had pickles in noodle soup, but the idea is not too far stretched from Vietnamese sour soups with pickled bokchoy (canh dưa chua), so why worry? The pickle (zha chai) in zha chai rou si mein is made from knobby stems of a type of mustard green. Sliced into short strips, zha cai resembles stir fried bitter melon in texture (solid and crunchy with a soft core). Eaten alone, zha chai has a salty zing to keep your tongue on its toes (and Mudpie away from the bowl). Meddled with shredded pork and noodle, the zing diminishes almost completely. Its sourness clears and freshens the broth like white paint on old walls. Rice noodle makes an even better match. On a sick or cold day, I’d rank zha chai rou si mein right up there with phở and bún mộc.

    The two giant bowls cost under $6 each, and unless you have a whale stomach it’s unlikely that you would have room for dessert. Now, if you do want to order dessert (soybean curd, almond jelly, and some two other things), it’s best to get a menu and point it out to the waitress, or speak Chinese. The waitresses do not know the word “dessert”. And be patient, because they are very cordial to you. 🙂

    Address: Szechwan Restaurant (Oakland Chinatown)
    366 8th Street
    Oakland, CA 94607-4241
    (510) 832-7878

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