Numb and number
By Lane Burgess, Special to the Citizen 01/10/13
The popularity of Peter Chang China Café has spread like wildfire, leaving customers’ mouths ablaze and tongues without feeling – but that’s the point of Schezuan food: the hotter the better.
Unless you don’t like spicy food, that is. Fortunately, there are other options on the menu for folks like us.
Tucked tightly in the same strip mall in Short Pump as Wal-Mart and Domino’s Pizza, the restaurant has a huge following in response to its famous chef and namesake, Peter Chang, former chef for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. The café opened about a year ago, one of three in Virginia.
All the hype proved true given the large crowd waiting for a table on a Sunday night when I headed there for dinner with a friend. After waiting in a tiny space for about 15 minutes, we were led to our table. Bold and peppery smells saturated the air and eventually caused me to have a few coughing fits. The spice-induced coughing is normal, someone at a nearby table told me.
Our server spoke confidently about spiciness, signature dishes and her suggestions. The servers are fast and well-educated about huajiao, the numbing pepper used in Schezuan cooking.
We took her word for it and began with the scallion bubble pancakes, two six-inch inflated and fried pancakes served with a curry dipping sauce. The pancakes lacked flavor; the sauce was delicious; our fingers were covered in greasy oil; and we ate every bite. I knew this wasn’t going to be health food.
We watched table after table eat up oversized Schezuan dishes like Bamboo Fish (fried fish, cumin powder, pepper powder, cilantro and scallions), and the Hot and Numbing Combination in a Hot Pot (jumbo shrimp, fish, chicken, beef and vegetables in a red hot sauce).
According to the restaurant’s manager, Schezuan food is good for the body and leads to weight loss and body warmth.
As for me, I played it safe when it came to my main dish and ordered the Chicken with Mixed Mushroom, a classic brown sauce over meat and vegetables. My expectations were high, but my food was average. Ten minutes after I got my meal, my friend’s plate arrived overloaded with Golden Mountain Beef, a signature dish of deep fried shredded beef in a special sauce. Each chewy, jerky-like piece of beef was full of sweetness.
Servings came piled high on each plate. Portions are enough to share or box up to take home, making the price well worth it. Groups can order food family-style, or individually like we did.
If you’re seeking a romantic setting for a date or a quiet night out, this is not the spot.
The lights are bright to match the lime-green walls, and the decor is simple.
Prints of Chinese landscapes hang on the walls, and paper butterflies dangle from the ceiling. The silverware is plain and the plates are plastic. For what the restaurant lacks in decor it makes up for in food presentation and variation.
For two girls looking to catch up, or a family meal, it’s the perfect place to try new flavors.
For those with a taste for heat, Peter Chang China Café will take your palate to the limit. For everyone else, get ready for a fairly standard Chinese meal with some rare options available to try.
The meal is an experience whether you hope to burn your taste buds off or leave them just the way they are.
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