Saturday, February 7, 2009

Spicy Szechuan at Asian Bistro

During the years that my wife was staying home with our kids and I was working, I always thought that she had the easier end of the bargain; I envied her time at home all day--in my mind she was always idly reading, sipping hot beverages on the couch while the kids napped. I'd come home after 10 hours of running around hot restaurant kitchens and wonder why she was always so stressed and ready to hand the kids off to me the second I walked in the door. "C'mon," I'd think, "how hard can it really be? Millions of women have been doing this for centuries."

Well. Karma--it's a bitch, isn't it?

Now, I'm unemployed, my wife is working, and I'm staying home dealing with the kids. And now I get it. It's hard. It's stressful. There's no leisurely beverage-sipping, no naps (for me, at least), and even carving out enough time to shower without worrying about coming out and finding Henry pinned under a bookcase is a challenge.

So, now, around six when I'm walking circles around the dining room table with the baby on my shoulder, attempting to employ just the right bounce so that she'll stop frickin' SCREAMING, Henry's telling me for the four hundred and sixty-third time about how, "Hey, Dad--Gordon is fastest and best" whereas Thomas is "really useful", and I see the dog run toward the back door, I breathe a sigh of relief and try to rein in the impulse to hand off the baby before my wife's even got her coat off.

So, yeah--ok. I get it. Props, ladies. It's not easy. In fact, I'm looking forward to going back to 10 hour days in a restaurant kitchen just to get some peace.

All of this is a big reason why I've been making an effort, in recent weeks, to do a regular Thursday night out with Mitch, a friend I've known since fifth grade. My wife doesn't work on Friday, so Thursday is the last day of the week that I'm solely responsible for diapers, spit-up, playdates, and Play-Doh®, so I took it upon myself to make Thursday night an opportunity to get together with an old friend, have a few beers, and try a new restaurant.

Mitch was the friend I mentioned in my review of Burt's Place, and he and I recently went to Asian Bistro in Arlington Heights last week to try what I had heard was some pretty authentic Szechuan food.

This place would've probably never even been on my radar, but Mitch is reluctant to drive too far and he lives in this area, so I did a little research (using this handy suburban restaurant index topic at LTH forum) and decided that this place would be a good one to try.

(A note about my intrepid dining companion: Mitch is not a foodie. He'd be perfectly happy eating a mediocre steak and under seasoned mashed potatoes every day of the week, which is fine. For him. But I like to try new places and new things and, if I'm spending some bucks, some time, and a meal opportunity on a night out, it's important to me to make it somewhat of an experience. If I left it up to Mitch, we'd be at Fox and Hound or Stony River Steakhouse every Thursday.)

That's not a knock on Mitch. Or others for whom restaurants like TGI McHoulihannigan's are just fine. Food simply doesn't hold the intellectual, cultural, and entertainment appeal for them that it does for me. Hey, I'm not really interested in movies or theater, so to each his own.

So while loaded potato skins and chicken fajitas might fill the belly, they don't feed my appetite for authenticity, for real, personalized experiences, or for the novelty of trying new, interesting dishes that I can't make myself or haven't ever heard of.

And Mitch, to his credit, appears to be allowing me to drag him to places that he normally would be disinclined to try. Probably due to the fact that I really had to talk him into making the half-hour drive over to Burt's, where he was blown away by the pizza and loved the classic old dive, hole-in-the-wall-type ambiance.

Burt's vindicated me; gave me credibility with Mitch. A mandate, even. I've got culinary capital now...and I intend to spend it.

Which brings us to Asian Bistro. (Finally. Damn, I do go on, don't I?)

It was practically empty when we arrived at around 7:30 last Thursday. There were two other tables--parties of two and six--and we were the only non-Asians in the place. We were greeted warmly and seated promptly at a nice booth to the rear of the dining room.

When the server first approached, Mitch asked for an iced tea, which appeared to confuse the guy. Mitch repeated his request and then I tried to help the waiter understand--but really, all I did was also repeat "iced tea" with a slight Hispanic accent, which is what I inexplicably tend to do when speaking to non-native English-speakers. Needless to say, this wasn't at all helpful.

Anyway, the guy vanished and we didn't see him for about 10 minutes. We thought maybe he was in back, frantically icing down a pot of hot tea or something, and he did eventually emerge with a pitcher of iced tea and two large glasses full of ice. I didn't order iced tea, and would normally have opted for a Diet Coke, but given the fact that the guy apparently went to some effort on this, I wasn't going to say anything and so just drank some of the tea. It was actually pretty good.

When he asked if we were ready to order, I started asking some questions and butchering some of the names of the dishes, so he called for backup and soon we had three--and then four--people at our table making sure we were being well taken care of.

And we were. This is why I love these kind of family-owned, authentic places. If you just show some interest, ask a few questions, and put yourself in the hands of the people for whom this food represents a cultural heritage, you get a really tasty meal, some knowledge, and a good dose of real hospitality.

The owner, an older woman who introduced herself as "Jenny", came over to help with the ordering. I knew I wanted the La Tsi (Dry Chile) Chicken, since I had read about this dish on LTH forum, and I knew Mitch wanted a couple more pedestrian choices, like fried rice and Mongolian beef, but other than that, we put ourselves in Jenny's hands.

She did not steer us wrong. She asked us if we liked spicy, and I said yes, so she recommended the spicy Szechuan wontons, which were fabulously spicy but also a bit sweet--steamed dumplings tossed in a very addictive sticky sauce (they're at the right in the picture above). She also gave us an eyeball-poppingly spicy cold noodle salad with these translucent gelatinous square-cut noodles that were apparently tossed in the same sauce, but with added crushed chiles and, I believe, fermented black beans. This dish was interesting, but too spicy even for me, and also texturally kind of strange.

We also tried Shu Mai, which were just kind of average (that was my choice, not Jenny's) and the Thai Meat Egg Roll, just to have something crunchy to dip into sweet and sour sauce. These were quite good, filled with lots of very good, sweet-tasting shredded pork and cellophane noodles, and wrapped in a very thin delicate skin that reminded me of what lumpia are usually wrapped in.

We liked the appetizers, but the entrees were really what blew us away. In particular the La Tsi chicken, which proved to be so addictive that I got another whole order of it to take home after we were done (it was Mitch's week to pay. Heh.) It's essentially this huge plate of small pieces of chicken that are stir-fried with slivers of garlic, slices of ginger, and about two hundred whole dried chiles. I'm not enough of an expert to know what kind of chiles they are, but they stir-fry them whole to simply infuse the oil with the heat and, while they're served in the bowl, you're not supposed to eat them. Or at least I'm not supposed to eat them. Jenny and her assistant, who kind of doted over us the whole meal, quickly clearing the plates the moment we finished the last morsel off of them, rushed over as the plate came out, making sure to warn us to "not eat the chiles".

I knew this already, but I kind of played up the gringo act for a laugh and picked one up as if I was going to chomp down on it. They got this great look of panic on their faces, so I assured them that we knew not to eat the chiles.

The chicken dish was awesome. The small pieces of chicken were simultaneously crispy, chewy, and tender, in a way that only a thin coating of cornstarch and an insanely hot wok can produce. It's a distinctly Chinese texture that I have never been able to reproduce in a home kitchen setting. The flavors were great. Very spicy, but the heat was balanced well by the large slices of stir-fried ginger which provided a great burst of flavor and relief from the spice. Mitch and I both loved this dish.

I tried the Mongolian beef and was pleasantly surprised as well. They used really high quality, large pieces of beef, and it was cooked perfectly, with lots of that smokey wok char flavor that you get from good Chinese cooking. Also, the fried rice was really excellent. We ordered the house special combo fried rice, which featured chicken, beef, and shrimp along with all the normal elements of fried rice, and it was just loaded. Tons of meat and really large shrimp in there, and, again, lots of flavor from the wok. I'd come back here again just for the fried rice, which, for me, is somewhat of an afterthought when eating Chinese food, especially Szechuan.

(Sorry for the low-grade cell-phone pictures, but you get the gist.)

We raved about the food to Jenny and the two helpful servers continued to attempt to anticipate all of our needs. The guy who came to our table first appeared to relegate himself to iced tea duty exclusively, but I was actually kind of thankful, since I was downing glasses of the stuff to put out the fire from the chiles. Jenny came over about halfway through and asked how I had heard about them and how I knew about some of the dishes I'd ordered, and I told her that I'd seen them mentioned online.

She was noticeably excited by this and told me that I should make sure to write a review about them. And, really, I should. I mean, this blog is one thing, but I should actually go to sites like Citysearch and Yelp and give these guys some love. The economy's killing little independent restaurants, and even with the huge Asian community in and around Arlington Heights, places like this probably need all the help they can get to survive. It would be a shame to see them close up only to be replaced by another Chipotle or Panera.

So this place was definitely a find. I only wish I lived closer so that we could do take-out from there once in a while. My wife, who is normally very interested in ethnic food and trying new and interesting things, is strongly anti-Chinese food (but I suspect that's due to one too many bad experiences with Amero-Chinese stuff like Egg Foo Yung and Chop Suey) would, I believe, really like this place.

And, of course, it was good to clear my head, get away from the kids, and be able to walk ten steps without sidestepping a Diaper Genie or tripping over the friggin' bouncy chair for the thirty-eighth time this week. I look forward to doing it again. Much the same way I look forward to breathing. Or drinking water. Or having coffee in the morning.

I need these Thursday nights. Really--I now feel your frustration, stay-at-home moms. And I'm already looking forward to my next foray into the northwest 'burbs. Since I'm picking the restaurants, I thought it would be only sporting to allow Mitch to make genre requests. And week will be barbecue. Suggestions welcome...stay tuned.....

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