Friday, February 19, 2010

Szechuan Throwdown, Mapo Dofu Battle

What started off as a casual lunchtime stop at a local Chinese restaurant ended up turning into a somewhat unplanned and lopsided battle. I had been looking for a place to have lunch and based on the comments on this Yahoo Maps site, China House seemed to be the place to go. Given that it was only a ten minute drive from my current location made it all that more appealing. While I certainly wasn't expecting the level of authenticity of a place like Wonton Gourmet, based on the comments, I did expect good Americanized Chinese cuisine.

Located at 4031 South Main Street, Akron, OH 44319, China House can be reached at 330-644-8288. At the time of this writing, no website could be found that was associated with the restaurant. Since the restaurant was in a retail outlet strip, there was plenty of parking available in the lot serving the myriad of storefronts.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Once inside, I quickly realized that the restaurant was definitely more of the Americanized Chinese dining experience. I grabbed a menu and began looking through it for something a little more ambitious than General Tso's chicken:

To my surprise, the restaurant was selling Mapo Dofu. For a moment it occurred to me that this restaurant might just have a glimmer of hope. Having had my fair share of Mapo Dofu in the past, I knew it was a flavor I enjoyed when done well. I went ahead and ordered it "ma la," which was the equivalent of asking them to make the sauce both spicy and numbing (in true Szechuan style). The person taking my order nodded at me in seeming acknowledgment of my request, took my money, and indicated that it would be brought out to me when ready.

After a few minutes, my rather substantial lunch arrived:

And a shot of my steamed rice:

After a small snafu with the person bringing out my lunch (I was asking for chopsticks and the older gentleman who brought my lunch out spoken absolutely no English), I dished myself up a plate:

A few observations about my lunch today. Mapo Dofu can be completely vegetarian, but most often it is served with pork. The pork is usually ground and it is in a decent ratio with the tofu. More of a tofu with pork kind of dish. I've had it spicy and not spicy and the amount of chili oil will cause the color of the sauce to vary from brown to reddish. If you like tofu, especially large chunks of tofu, then this version was for you. Sadly, while I dig tofu, it felt completely out of balance with the amount of pork strips that were present. The tofu itself was very Plain Jane and really added nothing to the dish except bulk. Additionally, the "sauce" that the tofu was literally swimming in was neither spicy enough nor very tasty. Honestly it tasted to me like it was simply thickened soy sauce. This had none of the complexities of a good Mapo Dofu. Since I was hungry, I did end up eating about half of this and simply threw the rest away.

The Mapo Dofu Battle arose because a day or so later I found myself at a restaurant in Hudson called Tai Wah. Tai Wah was located at 5835 Darrow Road, Hudson, OH 44256 and can be reached at 330-342-0888. Again, no website could be located at the time of this writing.

I have known where Tai Wah was located for some time. It wasn't until recently, however, that one of my readers brought it to my attention. While she originally recommended the Thai cuisine (specifically the curry), it was when I discovered that Mapo Dofu was on their menu that the concept of a battle between the two restaurants started to formulate in my brain. But, of course, I am getting a little ahead of myself.

Here was a shot of the exterior of the restaurant, nicely tucked away behind the Zeppe's:

Once inside, I could immediately tell that Tai Wah was a more upscale joint than China House had been. While I'm sure they served take-out occasionally, the bulk of their business was clearly in-house dining. The dining area was split about evenly between tables and booths and I requested a table near the back of the room so that I could inconspicuously take photos without bothering other patrons.

While the menu has several different pages, for whatever reason I decided only to take a photograph of the page with the spicy Chinese food items on it:

Tai Wah's version was clearly much more expensive than the one I had eaten at China House and I wondered if it the taste would live up to the price. At nearly $13, I hoped that at the minimum, at least I'd have leftovers that I'd want to take home with me.

I started out with a pot of green tea:

My waiter informed me that my spice level options were mild, medium, and hot. Knowing that Mapo Dofu was a Szechuan dish, I asked him if there were any heat level options above hot. He informed me that he could ask for it extra hot and bring out some chili pepper flakes in oil so that I could adjust it myself. That seemed like a reasonable solution and he went off to place the order.

About fifteen minutes later, he returned with this enormous platter of food:

Studded with lots of chili peppers, I knew that this was going to have a nice spicy kick to it. Along with my platter came my steamed rice and chili oil:

I dished myself up some of the rice and gently layered on the Mapo Dofu on top of the rice, making sure to spoon some of the liquid directly onto the rice. Here was a shot of my dinner plate:

Where China House's version had been swimming in nasty, flavorless brown sauce, Tai Wah's was brimming with the flavors of chili, ginger, and garlic. I also appreciated the restraint that Tai Wah used in the amount of sauce that came out with the dish. It was enough to make the dish interesting and paired excellently with the rice, but not so much that it overwhelmed everything. It was also nice to see a lot more pork than what I had received at China House. That being said, some of the pork was nice and tender and some of it was a tad bit chewy. While there was no numbing sensation from Szechuan peppercorns, there was plenty of burning from the assortment of nearly whole chilies that had been thrown into this dish.

Even as hungry as I was, I was only able to finish about 1/3 of my Mapo Dofu before asking my waiter to box up the remaining rice and tofu. This version was definitely coming home with me for a snack later on and probably lunch the next day. You most certainly got your money's worth at Tai Wah, although I have to question the extremely large portions ... why not just offer a half-portion at half the price?

Having had both restaurants versions of Mapo Dofu, it was obviously clear that Tai Wah won without any problems whatsoever. Not to say that Tai Wah has the best Mapo Dofu that I've ever had, but theirs was decent enough. Do I think it's fair to compare two restaurants that are obviously geared towards different types of customers? Absolutely. I ate both dishes at the respective restaurants and I could easily have gotten both orders to go. Based on my experience today and the suggestion that I give their curry a try, I definitely think a return to Tai Wah is in order. While I know I can't judge China House's entire menu on simply one item, my gut tells me that I'm probably going to have a similar experience with the rest of the food there. While I was initially excited to see a more Americanized Chinese menu with Mapo Dofu on it, if it isn't going to be executed well, then why even bother putting it on there? Trust me, no one who thinks that Chinese food only consists of egg rolls, General Tso's chicken, and crab rangoon would even know what they were missing.

However, if you are on the lookout for a good Mapo Dofu, check out Tai Wah on Rt. 91 just north of Terex Road. Better yet, share a couple of dishes family-style and you'll help to keep the cost of your meal to a reasonable level.

Tai Wah on Urbanspoon

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