This dish of sautéed string beans and smoky eggplant is likely to provoke ecstacy.
Six and a half years ago, I reviewed South Park Street’s Orient House, where a semi-secret menu full of non-Americanized Chinese dishes was available, as well as the one with all the takeout classics.
Now there’s Chili King — another sprawling, sometimes intimidating Chinese menu on South Park Street. That menu contains a slender American-style Chinese section that’s barely worth the time it takes to read. The good stuff’s everywhere else. You just have to dive in.
Witness the shift in international dining in America.
On my first visit, after ordering the tofu with special spicy sauce, we were discouraged from the dish on the grounds that it wasn’t the chef’s specialty. As the server turned over the menu to the side with the American section, my heart sank. However, he was pointing not to the crab rangoon or something equally Westernized, but toward the dried pot section, and to the beef stomach with spicy sauce.
The tripe was cut in a rough chiffonade, chewier than in similar dishes elsewhere on South Park, and was accompanied by a few unannounced slices of what was almost certainly tongue. A complex, satisfying sauce was the highlight.
On a subsequent visit, a different server had plenty of suggestions of his own when asked, and they were all solid picks. The beef stew with cilantro, he said, was his favorite. It came in a metal pot, with a wire handle like an old tea kettle. The beef was tender, luxuriant with fat. The dish was pleasantly unctuous, with slices of beef tendon, a little crunchy but slowly surrendering their collagens. Large chunks of whole spices, turmeric root and cardamom pod advise careful mouthfuls.
Dried pot chicken is served on the bone; between those bones, the skin and the somewhat harsh cooking technique, the meat was a little tough. But the spicy, oily broth was killer. There’s house special steamed whole fish, no small specimen, also served on the bone — perfectly flaky under a blanket of floral, zingy chopped peppers. For a modest upcharge, it can be made from fresh fish instead of frozen.
We were most blown away, unexpectedly, by a dish described as sautéed string bean. What was delivered was a heap of fat beans and spears of smoky eggplant, all cooked perfectly and with just enough slick, savory sauce. Every face at my table immediately shifted to ecstatic when the first mouthful hit.
Cumin lamb is another kind of ecstasy dish, a state of consciousness triggered by its usual blast of chili heat. Chili King’s version, when ordered moderately spicy, is quite nice, hot but not cruel. Despite also bearing the chili pepper symbol on the menu, twice-cooked pork with dried bean curd has almost no pepper heat. The bacon delivers plenty of flavor, though, and the mushroom-esque bean curd adds a new layer of texture to the dish.
That same bacon was the only flavor in the dish named Big Bowl of Cauliflower, which, vegetarians be warned, is not merely a big bowl of cauliflower, as it turns out. Also along for the ride are a scattering of chopped chilis and enough bacon to make the dish very salty indeed. If the cauliflower had a bit of crisp brown around the edges, I’d like this dish a lot more. As it is, it’s too soggy.
Someone could write a review of just the soup section of the menu, but I wouldn’t lead with the sliced pork with ginger soup. It’s an ample portion, but there’s no depth to the broth beyond ginger bite.
It’s probably no surprise, but I wouldn’t recommend the American style section at all. Pork egg rolls were bland and not quite crisp enough; I wanted mustard more than sweet sauce. The General Tso’s chicken was the blandest I’ve had.
There’s a reason this section appears as an afterthought on the Chili King menu. There are many other dishes that speak more confidently to Chili King’s virtues.
602 S. Park St., 608-422-5666, 11 am-10 pm. Sun.-Fri., 11 am-11 pm Sat., Note: There is one step up at the front door.