These dan dan noodles may be perfect, but I'd never be the one to tell you so.
4344 Convoy Street, San Diego
I'm not sure I've ever really had good Chinese food in San Diego. I've had good dishes at Chinese restaurants with distinctly English names, and I've had bad experiences pointing at what I think want from a picture menu in naïve hope that my palate can handle the results.
So it came to be that a friend plucked me from a long wait to be seated at PF Chang's to steer me towards Szechuan Chef, filling my head with stories about thinly sliced beef rolled between scallion pancakes with cilantro and hoisin dipping sauce.
Easy to spot in a shopping strip south of Balboa Avenue.
On the face of it, I like to think I dodged a corporate bullet and supported an independent, immigrant-operated shop on Convoy, one of our city's most precious resources for all the excellent authentic cuisine it provides. Never let it be said that being proud of yourself for eating somewhere didn't make the food taste better.
Which, sorry to say, makes my meal all the worse.
I was quite excited to try what the menu described in English and Chinese characters as the $7 "onion pancake with braised beef." I'd never encountered it before and the idea was thrilling. I tried to complement them with an order of dan dan noodles, a meatless dish also served cold. I figured it would be an easy, authentic, light dinner for a warm night.
So here's what happened: the meat was chewy and gristly, and the noodles overbearing in fresh garlic flavor. Terrible all the way around.
Okay, so the latter could be attributed to taste. I'm certainly not acclimated to the flavors of Szechuan, and our server did steer my friend away from trying a dish apparently so appallingly authentic she refused to eat it, let alone let him take a stab in the dark and hold her responsible.
Nothing wrong with the way it looks. Onion pancakes with braised beef. Szechuan Chef.
Point being, these might be the best dan dan noodles in town, in which case I won't be ordering them again, even if they do appear on the PF Chang happy hour menu.
But the gristly meat… someone please pipe up and tell me whether crappy meat's somehow considered a delicacy in central China, and that I'm missing the point entirely. Otherwise, Szechuan Chef ruined the experience of trying something new. The onion pancakes themselves were tasty, and the beefless option may have been enjoyable, but I won't return to find out.
I wistfully passed the Friar's Road exit on the way home, ruing the day I would have taken PF Chang's over something genuine and somehow more local. But I guess that's why Kearney Mesa's Asian restaurant row is so valuable to the area: plenty of other Szechuan restaurants to choose from. Suggestions welcome.