This is not going to be a typical blog post for me. I view this blog as a recipe file for my daughters, Miriam and Eilene, which I allow the rest of the Internets peek in on. Today, however, I feel compelled to write a restaurant review. Myr and Eilene already know and love this restaurant, so this post is for everybody else.
South Legend Sichuan Restaurant
If you are ever within 50 miles of Milpitas, California, you must find and eat at the South Legend Sichuan Restaurant. I have mentioned this restaurant before in passing. Yesterday, we had a great meal there that rivaled the best ones we had in more than a year in Chengdu, Sichuan.
In 1988-89, we were teaching English at Chengdu Kē Jì Dàxué (coo gee dasway—the nickname for the Chengdu Science Technology Big School, or in English the Chengdu University of Science and Technology). Since we taught there, it has been absorbed by Sichuan University (nicknamed Chuān Dà—River Big) which shared a back fence with the smaller “nerd school.”
The road that divided the two schools had a dàn dàn miàn restaurant (担担面, “peddler’s noodles” and being generous to call it a restaurant) whose cooking pot had not been empty in over a hundred years (or so we were told). I have always called these big cut noodles (dà dàn miàn 大担面), partly because of the way they were made. Apparently no one else call them this. As I was writing this, Jan explained that another reason for my misunderstanding is that when the Chinese repeat a word the final consonant of the first word frequently gets swallowed. So that when they say dàn dàn it sounds like dà dàn.
Note: This is one of the disadvantages of learning a language on the street, you only know what you think you heard.
Every night the cook would add fresh ingredients to the still boiling remains of the day’s soup/sauce to refresh the pot. The sauce would simmer all night and in the morning. When the first customer came in, the cook would slice noodles into the pot to boil.
The cook would hold a large loaf of noodle dough on his left forearm. He used a curved sharpened sheet of copper to slice off half inch by eight inch by quarter inch thick noodles. You could always tell a dàn dàn miàn cook, because the first three fingers on his left hand were always be the same length, from when he had misjudged the cuts over the years.
When the noodles floated to the top, the cook would skim off the noodles with just a little bit of the precious sauce. At the end of the day the cook would have about half a pot full of the remaining soup/sauce. He would add his secret blend of spices and stock to simmer for the next day before shutting the shop down for the night.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What does this 25 year old memory of a great meal have to do with a restaurant review?” Please have patience. There is a point to this.
Note: Two paragraphs deleted by Jan as nèi bù (internal). If you understand, you understand. If you do not, then it is nèi bù.
Our guanxi relationship with Joe is deep and abiding. Last summer we met Joe and his family in Seattle. Jan and Joe’s wife nearly came to blows over who would pay for the meal, because you always want them (who ever they are) to be in guanxi debt to you. When Joe let us that he was in San Jose, we knew we wanted to take him to the best Sichuan restaurant in the area, South Legend.
The first time we ate at this restaurant we were the only ones in the place that were not Chinese (if not Sichuanese). When our order came the person at the next table leaned over and said, “You order like you were Chinese!” It turned out that she had been a student in Chengdu Kē Jì Dàxué while we were teaching there in 1988.
There are many “Sichuanese” restaurants in the Bay Area. The most disappointing ones are run by Cantonese who tīng bù dǒng (hear not understand). Cantonese cooks may make great Cantonese food, but I have yet to meet one that understands how to make Sichuanese food. However, I will admit to a certain Sichuan bias (isn’t “good Cantonese food” an oxymoron?) I suppose that if I had spent my time in China living and eating in Guangzhou I would think, “Oh, that Sichuan food is too spicy!”
On a side note, tīng bù dǒng is a useful phrase if you are ever in China. You are saying that you heard what the person said, but that your skill at Chinese is not good enough to understand what they said. This prevents them from saying it louder or worse writing the characters in the air with their finger. (It is not just Americans and English who think that if you say it louder the stupid foreigner will understand. Please understand that I say this after having spent years as the “stupid foreigner.”)
All of this has been to make you understand that we know and love Sichuan. We love the food, the people, the unique culture and the idiosyncrasies of Chengdu. To hear the broad tones of Chengdu huà (dialect) takes us back to our Chinese home. To go to the South Legend is a trip back in time for us. To feast Joe we ordered three dishes.
As I had passed another table I had spotted a plate with a mound of bright green vegetables. I knew that I wanted some of that! Scanning their new menu, I decided that it must be “pea shoot in garlic sauce.” Pea shoot (dà dòu miáo 大豆苗 is a vegetable that we learned to love in China. Instead of eating the pea pods, the mature tendrils (the leaves and stems) are harvested and stir fried, steamed or added to soups. These are not to be confused with pea sprouts (shǎo dòu miáo 少豆苗), which are the immature plants. The dish that came to our tables was everything I hoped it would be and tasted just like the ones we had enjoyed in Chengdu.
The second dish we ordered was “twice cooked pork.” My friends in Chengdu would always be surprised by my liking this dish and say, “Why are you ordering that? It is a peasant’s dish.” This is one of my favorite dishes and for me this is the best dish that Chengdu has to offer. When I make it myself, I am trying to achieve the flavor that I remember from those days. South Legend has that flavor.
The last dish we ordered was called “home style steamed fish in fire sauce” in English. Joe thought this was very funny, because the name in character was “home sick.” This obviously does not translate well, so they changed the translation. Joe pointed out several cases on the menu where the character titles did not quite match the English translations. In this case, the allusion is that when you eat this dish it makes you homesick for your mothers’ Sichuan cooking.
The fish was only lightly steamed before being added to the “fire sauce.” It came out perfectly moist and melt-in-your-mouth tender. Many times if you order a dish like this the fish will be over cooked and tough. South Legends cook had it timed perfectly, so that the fish finished cooking on it’s way to the table.
The South Legend’s “fire sauce” tasted like it came right out of that pot in the back street of Chengdu. It was the dark red, pungent, rich sauce that is only found in “real” Sichuan restaurants. Large chunks of spicy dried Sichuan chilies floated in the unctuous flavorful sauce. The surface if the dish was coated with at least a tablespoon, if not two, of coarsely ground Sichuan pepper.
As far as heat is concerned, it was not even close to the fire sauce used by the Vietnamese restaurant Crawdaddy, which will literally raise blisters. Real Sichuan sauces will be spicy, but not gut wrenching (it is not Hunan cuisine after all). The Sichuan pepper, which is properly added only at the end of cooking, actually numbs your mouth and buffers the burn of the capsicum. If you add the Sichuan pepper at the beginning of cooking, the volatile chemical responsible for this effect will cook off and be lost.
Even though Sichuan pepper looks like red/brown pepper corns, it is actually a citrus fruit. If it is fresh it will make your mouth “buzz” like a shot of Novocaine from the dentist. To test your pepper, bite on one corn and see if you get that effect in your mouth. If you do not then your pepper is past its prime and you will have only a shadow of the true flavor. South Legend’s fire sauce had the “real deal.”
When we finished our meal there was a large amount of the fire sauce left in the bowl. I made sure to have this boxed up to take home. The next day I steamed some cod, stir-fried a few vegetables and had a repeat performance of the restaurant dish. This may be the only way I will ever have this dish at home, because the ingredients of the really great sauces are closely guarded family secrets.
Note: In the end, after a struggle, Joe paid for the meal. Curses–lost the guanxi battle, again. His wife will be so proud of him.
Steamed Fish with Fire Sauce
Note: This can hardly be called my recipe, because I am using the leftover sauce of a far greater cook than myself. And this dish is only a shadow of the one we had at the restaurant.
1 lb. cod (or other white fish)
1 Tbs. peanut oil
1 cup vegetables (garlic stem, chive stem, Napa cabbage, or whatever you have available)
1 cup leftover South Legend Fire Sauce
2 cups steamed rice
1. Place 2 cups of water in a wok and put an inverted plate in a steamer basket.
Tip: Usually when I steam fish I would have the plate upright to catch the juices of steamed fish. In this case, you want them to drain away, so they do not dilute the Fire Sauce.
2. When the water comes to a boil, put the steamer in the wok and let it steam for 8-10 minutes (less if the fish it in thin pieces). Remove the steamer and set it aside on a baking tray to catch any dripping moisture.
3. Drain and clean the wok.
4. Add the peanut oil and stir-fry your choice of vegetables (3-4 minutes).
5. Add the Fire sauce and simmer for one minute.
6. Add the steamed fish and break the filets into large pieces.
7. Toss gently to coat the fish with the sauce and serve immediately over steamed rice.