Yeah, I know I've been heralding many a Chinese restaurateur of late, but I can't help it if they continue to go toe-to-toe in bouts of culinary one-upmanship. The latest has Taste of Chengdu's Xiong "Tiger" Tang in one corner going up against chef Jian Hua Wang of Chef Wang's Kitchen in the other and, for now, the Tiger can crown himself champeen.
Tang's shrine to all things Sichuan may not be much to look at, though the cool-ish light fixtures do the job of illuminating the wickedly peppery dishes coming from this highly flammable kitchen. Tang's menu reads like a greatest hits list from Sichuan Province – mostly from the capital, Chengdu, naturally but, in a few cases, from Chongqing, where dishes are downright infernal.
The Chongqing spicy noodle soup caught our eye on one occasion, but we were told it was no longer available and that the menu would soon be modified to take into account palates unaccustomed to Sichuan cuisine's tongue-numbing, gut-burning pleasures. I couldn't help but wonder if Tiger had caught a tiger by its tail. Is he dumbing down a menu so well received by the city's foodie contingent? Is he struggling at the thought of pandering for broader appeal?
Not yet, and certainly not if you've sweated over a stunning platter of pan-fried pompano (market price) all but concealed under a heap of triple chili pepper (that's fresh chilies, dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns), peanuts and a five-spice sauce. It's an incredibly bold dish, but not so bold as to mask the subtle flavors of the fish in any way. I'll say the same about the whole lobster (market price), hacked and reassembled with its carapace adorned in an alluring mix of chilies, peppercorns, garlic and cilantro like an offering to Zao Jun, the Kitchen God. Tang's got skills, no doubt.
Then there are the spicy Sichuan pork dumplings ($5.95) afloat in chili oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds; a gorgeous cold app of boiled chicken ($11.95) in chili sauce (the leftovers of which you'll devour for breakfast the next morning); and lamb ($18.95) sautéed in hot pepper sauce wrapped in tinfoil. What can I say? The hits – more like jabs and punches to your kisser – just keep on coming and coming in a hella firestorm of food.
But when the Tiger leaves the kitchen in the hands of cub cooks, the spicy Chengdu beef fried rice ($11.95) seems a smidge less lustrous; the diced rabbit with orange sauce ($11.95) comes hastily plated, the chunks more bony than meaty; and that lamb, well, it just seemed to lose its pizazz when Tang played no hand in its firing.
I know some may have an issue with the subjectivity of that last statement, but I find when the eye of the Tiger isn't on the staff, nuances in the food are lost and there's a little less urgency in the service. It should be noted that Tang went to culinary school in Sichuan Province and, for about 14 years, ran a pretty tight ship as the executive chef of Zen at the Omni Orlando Resort. So a slight slump in execution and service isn't beyond the realm of reason.
But it's not so bad: A spicy Chongqing hotpot ($35) was a surf-and-turf bonanza of head-on shrimp, tripe, beef and fried fish mixed with crunchy lotus root and cauliflower – another electrifying dish to gratify the capsicum-deprived. Of course Sichuan classics like mapo tofu ($11.95) and kung pao chicken ($7.95) can be had, and the stir-fried green beans ($11.95), if you'll forgive the irony, are as addicting and binge-worthy as Narcos. I couldn't stop eating them. Visits here, you should know, are a hard habit to break once you've had a taste of Chengdu.