What $3.99 buys: scallion pancake.
King Mu of Zhou dreamed of tasting the peaches of immortality. The brave charioteer Zaofu offered him his chariot to carry him there. Eight horses pulled the chariot. One of them ran faster than birds fly. Another traveled as fast as the shadow of the sun.
Shuo and Bruce present my flaming pot.
Hmm... You can believe it, looking up at this beautiferous Chinese black-and-white watercolor painting of the eight horses. Ever since King Mu ruled a big chunk of China, like, 3000 years ago, artists have been painting those eight horses (Why eight? Because “eight” in Chinese sounds like the word for “prosperity”), and people like Dee the owner here have been putting them on their walls so success and good luck would gallop into their lives.
Three of King Mu's Eight Horses
It has worked tonight. Crowded. Sunday night. I see why: I’m slurping maybe my most delicious Chinese dish for a long time: a bowl of dan dan noodles.
We’re in Coronado, bayside. In Spicy House, the Chinese place that has taken over from the Japanese restaurant Shima.
I can’t resist ordering one of the expensive ones — the chicken cube in flaming pot ($14.99).
“Drink?” said Bruce, the manager, when I first sat down.
“Tsing Tao,” I said, of course. It’s like Vietnam’s “33” Beer. Has romantic connections. Even though this version is brewed in Cincinnati.
So, I was searching the menu. Needed to be careful here, though. This place does Szechuan cuisine. From what I’ve read, those people take their heat seriously. They consider the rest of China spice wimps.
126 Orange Ave., Coronado
All the usual suspects, of course. Egg roll ($6.99), steam bun ($8.99), cold seaweed salad ($3.99), orange chicken ($14.99), Mongolian beef hot pot ($15.99), kung pao chicken ($14.99).
Not the cheapest. But noodle dishes come in cheaper at around $9.
Meanwhile, I luck out on my first choice, a scallion pancake for $3.99. Price is right, and I’ve always heard the legend — and, okay, only legend — that Marco Polo ate this in China and missed it so much when he got back to Italy, he persuaded chefs to copy the idea, and pizza was born.
This one has a nice savory taste, with scallions — green onions — inside, and a bready feel, which you don’t expect in rice-and-noodle-loving China. And, of course, it’s made from dough, not batter like western pancakes. And it has its flavorings inside, not on top, as pizzas do. Seems scallion pancakes are a popular street food, in Chungking, where Bruce comes from. Hmm... Check Google Maps. Southwestern part of China. On the Silk Road? For sure. Back in medieval days, Szechuan cooks reached out west and returned with Near Eastern crops like broad beans, sesame, and walnuts. And, yes: under “authentic Szechuan cuisine,” I spot walnut shrimp ($16.99).
But the thing you can see they take most pride in is a spice they call Sichuan pepper; the Chinese name calls it a flower spice. Bruce says it delivers a different kind of heat: intense, fragrant, citrus-like flavor, and produces a “tingly-numbing sensation in the mouth.”
He points to the first noodle dish: Chungking Hot Numbing Spicy Noodle ($7.99).
“Basically it numbs your lips,” he says, “if you choose it as hot as Szechuan people like it.”
I head back to the menu as I chew my scallion pancake, which is tingly but not gob-smacking hot. It goes great with the Tsing Tao.
So, yeah, noodles are the way to go, price-wise. Fried dumpling noodles are $7.99. So are Chungking-style fried or steamed dumplings.
But the one that catches my eye is dan dan noodle ($7.99). Mainly because it says right after, “Add ground pork free.”
Free is good. Besides, what’s dan dan?
“Ah,” says Dee. “It means ‘carrying pole.’ It is the dish that you can buy from the food vendors who take their noodles and fires around on bamboo poles through the streets.”
Wow. Street food. I go for that. And the free pork. And, good choice. Actually, not just good, grrr-eat. It’s noodles, pork, scallions, peanuts, and pickled cabbage (Szechuanese are big on pickling vegetables), and yes, in a rich broth. So-oo savory. Umami perfection, as the Japanese might say. Definitely not watery like Cantonese noodles.
What’s in it? The essentials, the guys say, are sesame paste — oh, yeah. Taste that now! — and chili broad bean paste, fermented black beans, chili oil, chili flakes of the “heaven-facing pepper,” along with garlic, green onions, and rice wine. I would come back for this any day.
Hot? Yes, sir. But I still suspect they went easy on me. Whatever. Now I can’t resist ordering one of the expensive ones — the chicken cube in flaming pot ($14.99), just ’cause I love the flaming pot at table idea. But, man. You talk of spicy hot? There’s more peppers than chicken, by far. Red, green, fresh, dried. This is heat to make your jowls rattle. And yet it’s maybe more flavored than, say, Thai or Mexican heat.
“That’s because our Szechuan peppers taste different,” says Bruce. And I do feel a kinda warmer flavor in there.
Above all, it’s interesting. Except I know the heat would set the lovely Carla afire. I play safe and order a kung pao chicken ($14.99, actually a Szechuan dish itself) and ask them to keep that definitely not hot.
So many things I want to try next time, like ma po tofu. Sounds bland, but actually the translation is “pockmarked grandma’s beancurd.” They say it’s spicy hot enough to make you break out into a sweat just smelling it.
I walk out feeling like Columbus, like I just made a new discovery on this island. Night’s coming. Bay’s purple. Downtown buildings luminous. Bugle’s sounding from North Island. Far-off trains blast their horns. Dusk flops over the waters like an old velvet curtain.
I repeat the phrase Chuo just taught me to describe that dan dan noodle experience:
“Hao hao chi. Very good eat.”
The Place: Spicy House, 126 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-435-1775; also on Convoy
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; closed Tuesday
Prices: Scallion pancake, $3.99; egg roll, $6.99; steam bun, $8.99; cold seaweed salad, $3.99; orange chicken, $14.99; Mongolian beef hotpot, $15.99; kung pao chicken, $14.99; fried dumpling noodles, $7.99; chicken cube in flaming pot, $14.99; walnut shrimp, $16.99; dan dan noodle, $7.99
Nearest bus stops: Orange and Second
Ferry: Coronado–San Diego
Nearest ferry stop: Coronado Ferry Landing, First and B