How much should a food critic trust an establishment named Taste of China? In one fell swoop of a name, the Chapel Street newcomer manages to reduce all the colors of Chinese cuisine into one: the red of a Spicy, Sichuan peppercorn.
The appetizer, Chung Du Jelly ($8), arrives in a rather elegant plate, sitting in a pool of glossy red chili oil and unapologetic mounds of fermented black beans, garlic, and minced pork. It’s fiery—not quite numbing like it should be—but exciting to the palate. Also exciting is the fact that a Chinese restaurant on Chapel can serve a traditional snack that tastes nearly as punchy as its authentic cousin in Sichuan.
Of course, there are items on the menu that cater almost exclusively to American tastes, such as the Tea Smoked Duck ($22) and the Mongolian Beef ($20), which we mistakenly ordered at the waitress’ recommendation. And of course, like at the American-Chinese joints down the road and just next door, these dishes were largely underwhelming. In these entrées, spice levels were toned down, and the characteristic aromatic char of Oriental wok dishes was noticeably absent.
That said, I believe I owe Taste of China a second visit. While picking through yet-to-be-caramelized onions, I spotted on the tables around me a whole steamed fish simmering in chili oil, popcorn chicken buried in crispy Sichuan peppers, and a rather tantalizing bowl of dandan noodles.
Perhaps the waitress spotted me eyeing my neighbors’ food: she came over and made me promise to return. She’ll bring out the authentic stuff, she says. “Your head will steam and your jaw will go numb. Thank you, come again.” Though Taste of China’s Americanized menu items don’t quite live up to the name, their Sichuanese flavors are promising enough to warrant a second meal and certainly inviting to anyone looking for authenticity and a spicy kick.