Occupation: Retired Cooking Teacher
Location: Walnut Creek
Favorite Restaurant: Sichuan Fortune House
Reviewed Sichuan Fortune House: Friday, April 9, 2010
This is a gem among all the Chinese restaurants in this area because of its authentic Sichuan cuisine! I’ve been coming here for over two years and all of my friends and colleagues to it — without exception, they all loved the food.
Sichuan cooking is characterized by the term, “ma la.” “La” is spicy hotness from chiles, especially in terms of frying or stir-frying dried chiles in hot oil. “Ma” is the numbing sensation one gets from the use of a particular spice called Sichuan peppercorn, which is grown in Sichuan China. Some of the following dishes we ordered exemplified the “ma la” concept.
To start us off, we were given a small plate of marinated Napa cabbage (spicy) with fried peanuts to nibble as we decide what to order.
West Sichuan Style Fish Fillet Soup: The soup was covered with dry chiles that had been fried. The waitress skimmed them off before serving us the soup. Thank goodness! No way could we have eaten the chilies. The flavorful soup had a hint of chile flavor with the most tender fish fillets, clear mung bean noodles, and slivered ginger. Very unusual.
Sichuan Country Style Chicken (a cold plate): Succulent pieces of chicken with slivered green onions in a slightly spicy hoisin sauce. If you are adventurous, they also have other cold plates using organ meats such as tongue, tripe, kidneys, etc., and all are exceptionally well seasoned, some with Sichuan peppercorn. These cold plates are generally not found in other restaurants offering Sichuan-style food.
Ma Po Tofu: Hot and spicy flavor with a lip-numbing sensation from the Sichuan peppercorn is what makes this regional dish so distinctive. It also has some whole, salted black beans to punch up the flavor. This is a meatless dish and is just like the ones I had in China. I always order this dish because no other restaurants I know come close to this authentic version.
Eggplant with Spicy Garlic Sauce: Rich and garlicky in flavor, meaty and velvety in texture. Yum!
Dry Cooked Green Beans: Fresh and crunchy green beans that have been slightly fried with finely minced garlic and Sichuan pickled mustard greens. It is not a particularly spicy dish, so it provides relief from other more spicy entrees. There are many more non-spicy vegetables you can order, such as pea sprouts with garlic, stir a-choy (a kind of lettuce), stir-fried julienned potatoes (Yes, potatoes!), etc. All with crunchy textures and that are mildly seasoned.
Cumin Lamb: Tender, sliced lamb and vegetables, stir-fried and seasoned with cumin spices! You can also order this with beef. It is quite an unusual item, as most Chinese dishes do not use cumin. But this Middle Eastern spice came through the Silk Route long ago and is popular in some parts of China.
There are so many other dishes that we liked, such as the stir-fried tea-smoked Duck, which is my husband’s favorite. Their casserole dishes are definitely worth trying. The portion sizes were very generous. There were four people in our party, and the service was attentive and friendly, although some of the help are limited in their English. We missed Alan the owner, who, I was told, was taking his annual trip to China to gather more ideas and recipes. The decor and atmosphere was simple and tasteful. We had enough leftovers for lunch the next day!
So, including tax, and tip, it came to $16 per person. We did not order any drinks. Beer was available, and it would go very well with the spicy food. Notice we had 3 dishes that were vegetarian, because we had a friend who was a non-meat eater. The vegetarian dishes were so great, because tofu and rice combined make a perfect protein. The eggplant dish has such a rich mouthfeel that one does not miss eating meat at all!
Occupation: Courts Policy Analyst
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Manor Coffee Shop
Reviewed Sichuan Fortune House: Saturday, April 10, 2010
I’m not one of those San Franciscans who thinks that Pleasant Hill is either Pleasanton or so far away it’s almost the same as going to Sacramento, so I was excited to go to Pleasant Hill’s Sichuan Fortune House for dinner. On the Saturday night we went, it didn’t take at all long to get there — barely over 30 minutes. However, I will admit that when I first saw the Sichuan Fortune House right next to the Cigarettes! Outlet, the location made me a bit dubious. But the unprepossessing white building with the red lanterns had a certain downbeat charm, and they had a parking lot, so that alone earned them points. In addition, the restaurant is right off 680 and is easy to find.
Once inside, the décor is pleasant but nothing special; sort of like a former family-style restaurant after a little makeover. It is essentially a big open room with tables scattered about. There are a number of large tables to accommodate groups, and good, but not overly bright, lighting. What sets the Sichuan Fortune House apart, and fills the space with warmth, is the wonderful staff, who clearly care about the food they are serving and about making guests feel comfortable. And I was intrigued to try more Sichuan food, as I like both Vietnamese and Thai food for their spiciness and bright flavors.
We sat down to a pot of hot tea that was steeped and ready to pour, and a small dish of pickled vegetables — that tasted like mild kimchee — topped with sweetened peanuts, which was a delicious combination. The menu included some pretty varied choices with several pages of Sichuan dishes deemed, “Our Chef Specialty,” and an array of offal that the menu lists as “Exotic Sweetmeats” (which I think actually means candies and confections so don’t be surprised!) and cold plates like tripe and jelly fish. I didn’t eat any of the latter, but I was impressed they were available.
Soon a very charming man who appeared to be the manager/owner came and, learning that we had not been there before, set about helping us order. He was very helpful and told us that if anything was too spicy or we didn’t like it, we could send it back and we wouldn’t be charged. I have never heard anyone in a restaurant actually proactively state that type of guarantee, and I was impressed!
I don’t know if the kimchee-like vegetable dish was a litmus test to determine our spice tolerance, but the charming man did comment that we must not like spicy food because we hadn’t eaten a lot of it. On the contrary, I told him, we just hadn’t had a chance to enjoy it. We then went through a somewhat vague and nuanced back-and-forth (typical when you are in an unfamiliar restaurant that specializes in hot foods), where he tried to gauge our level of spice fear, and we tried to figure out if his “medium spicy” was Midwest medium spicy (i.e., tepid) or Bangkok medium spicy (i.e., volcanic). Although throughout the meal I did feel a systemic warming (beads of perspiration formed on my forehead) rather than mouth burning, in the end the food overall could have been dialed up a few degrees.
We started with the beef pancake, beef and scallions in a crispy sesame pancake with plum sauce spread inside, and the spicy Sichuan wontons in the homemade spicy garlic sauce. The pancake was fine, but the sauce needed to be spread evenly throughout, because some places were bland where there was no sauce. This can be remedied by serving a little plum sauce on the side. The wontons were outstanding, and, because it was so delicious, I kept the sauce for the rest of the meal. However, while the sauce was well seasoned, it was not really what I would call “spicy.”
We shared three main courses and a side of vegetables and, given the generous portion sizes, that was more than enough food for three. The food came out quickly, and the service was very cordial and efficient. We had the Black Pepper Beef Clay Pot, which was outstanding, and our favorite dish overall. They took tender beef strips and humble black pepper and really made them sing. We also ordered a side dish of sautéed green pea sprouts. They tasted just like snow peas, but were leafy in form and were simple and delicious and a great complement to the beef.
We also shared two other entrees, the seafood clay pot and the 20 Spice Pork Shoulders. The seafood clay pot was really more of a tofu clay pot with some seafood thrown in for flavor, but at $13.00, I guess I shouldn’t have expected a seaside feast, and the creamy fried tofu pieces and vegetables were very good. The 20 Spice Pork Shoulders took longer to prepare, and when it did appear it provided a bit of spectacle. The skin of the pork had become almost black and gelatinized (it resembled the skin of uncooked monkfish), and our gentleman guide took the meat off the bones — reserving them for the dog’s later enjoyment (sweet) — and mixed the whole thing together with the bok choy. This was, admittedly, not the most appetizing concoction for one of us, but I thought the meat was very tender and tasted good.
The strange thing about these two dishes is that they were probably two of the most dissimilar looking dishes on the menu and yet they tasted oddly similar. The underlying flavor of the sauces seemed to be the same and, again, the pork was not particularly spicy, which may have been because they backed off on the fire for our dish or because that’s the way it is prepared.
There were no beverages listed on the menu, but judging by the boxes stacked in the entry hall it seemed the only beer they had was Tsingtao, and I enjoyed a frosty one. I also saw someone drinking wine, so it is probably available for the asking, along with soda and milk.
Overall, Sichuan Fortune House offers good bang for the buck (the pork was the second most expensive dish on the menu at only $18.00), the welcome is second to none, the staff are quick, responsive, and nice, and the menu is extensive and intriguing. You really feel that they want people to explore, learn about, and experience Sichuan cooking. If I were in the area I might go back for the Black Pepper Beef and to try some other Sichuan specialties. Just make sure that your first time there, you make sure to let them know you are comfortable with spice, so they don’t hold back.
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: L’Ardoise Bistro
Reviewed Sichuan Fortune House: Saturday, April 3, 2010
As we were making the trek with some friends from San Francisco to Pleasant Hill, I couldn’t help thinking, “Why would a suburban restaurant I have never heard of make it onto anyone’s ‘Favorite Places to Eat’ list?” My snobby San Francisco attitude had kicked in at full force, but as the long drive went on, I decided to just give it a go without having preconceived expectations. “I’m here, I might as well. Something about it has to be good,” I thought.
The exterior of the place is nothing to write home about, and neither is the interior, for that matter. Strong, interrogation-style lighting, plain walls with a few scattered paintings; a serving station with plate settings strangely plunked smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant; cases of beer lining the hallway. But who cares about that! Let’s look at the menu. Aha! So surprising it was to see many exotic options on there. One would expect 300 + items, as is usually the case at a Chinese eatery, but the menu choices at Sichaun Fortune House were nothing like anything we had experienced before.
Crispy beef; succulent shrimp; a delicious cilantro-beef soup with egg; beer duck in a clay pot; Beijing pork; hot and sour soup…the list went on and on. By the way, all the items I just mentioned were immediately ordered by our hungry group. The beef was a clear winner, so was the shrimp, the spices and consistency of which were a delight to everyone at our table. Same goes for the soups. The hot and sour soup was just outstanding, and with just the right balance of flavors.
The place was abuzz with groups of Chinese patrons — an automatic stamp of approval in my opinion, for a Chinese restaurant — as well as customers from various other origins. Service was brisk, but not hurried. We had 3 people waiting on us hand-and-foot, which is quite unusual for this type of restaurant and in a suburban area like Pleasant Hill.
The staff gladly recommended their favorite sides and sauces to go with our choices, and really made us feel like we were dining at a very expensive restaurant, which brings me to my next point: the cost! By the end of dinner, it seemed as if we had ordered the entire menu, but when it was time to settle, the bill came to just about $135 for 5 of us with beverages, tax, and tip included! That, to me, represents incredible value for money, considering the superior quality of the food.
If I find myself in the area again, I’d pick Sichuan Fortune House for its phenomenal food, and friendly, casual atmosphere.