An unexpected hour to kill on the school run. I want big flavours, I want something with spice and aromatics. Where to eat when you want lunch with heft?
“I’m not paying to do a bushtucker trial”, says my friend, and that’s from someone I’ve always thought of as a trencherman. Thus are the battle lines drawn at the doors of Old Sichuan. Let’s leave any thoughts of the poundshop Vic and Bob to one side, though parts of this menu make little allowance for us squeamish westerners.
Let’s count off some of the highlights. Pigs’ feet? Beef and pork tripe? Pigs’ ears? River snails? Chicken gizzards? Pigs’ intestines? Jellyfish, served cold? Perhaps most divisively, how about ‘elephant trunk clam’, also known as geoduck, and apparently one of the longest-living animals on the planet. It looks like something only a mother could love, and a horse could envy.
Your local Friday night Chinese from Just Eat this is not.
Offal is having its moment in the sun locally, thanks to Dark- and I had nothing but praise for how they have set out their ideas- but Old Sichuan is a reminder that hundreds of millions of people have eaten this way for many centuries: or ‘An Ancient Civilization’ as the mural reminds us, a ‘taste of home’.
It’s a small space, only five tables all with the recessed heating panels for traditional Sichuan hotpot. 20 people in here would be stretching it, I’d think. It’s low on frills, a cartoon of a fiery pepper cross eyed with effort as his hat soars skywards catching the eye.
It’s part of the Dragon Hypermarket next door – bao, chilli oils, sushi accessories, live shellfish- and the company includes a bakery… and an antiques shop. Are other local restaurants missing a trick, do you think? Should Milkwood have a nail bar or Uisce offer ‘Keys cut while u wait’ for your lamb crumpet’? Is The Heathcock failing us by not offering an eyebrow extensions or tinting and waxing while you fall in love afresh with their rabbit pappardelle? Is The Dusty Knuckle Fish Pedicure Emporium imminent? (Actually, given how prolific they are, that’s probably in the business plan for the coming year…)
All faintly surreal? Try a drinks menu which also offers Marlboro and Benson & Hedges. And that’s before I am served by an eleven year-old.
I start to worry when I see the rice. Heavy on the egg, billed as a ‘side portion’, sticky, flecked with little crisp shallots, plenty of garlic, a touch of shrimp paste funk, it’s a meal in itself.
Heroically, I press on. Ribs turn out to be, effectively, nuggets. Pork bones, slow-cooked until almost easing apart, then dusted in chilli and salt and deep fried. If you’re bothered by the richness of pork fat, these might be a bit much, because these aren’t the lengths of bone you get on a Friday night takeway. Neither have they been done char siu or honeyed.
No, these are something more… interactive. These need gnawing, worrying at. Angles of attack. In another setting, with a cold beer, these would be the bar snack of the gods.
From the ‘home style’ section, lamb with cumin is everything I want it to be. Robustly flavoured, plentiful- there’s a theme here- and laced with the deep rust of chilli oil. It’s an impressive plate of food, headily scented. A scattering of scallions, some coriander and you’re good to go.
This meat, beaten out for quick cooking, relies on its marbling to prevent dryness- a hurdle cleared with ease. I end up bringing it home for seconds, where it confirms my suspicion that this is my favourite new dish of the week.
They don’t have a card machine- so either take cash with you (there’s an ATM next door) or you’ll find myself being walked outside and to their supermarket next door to pay at the counter. It’s not the first time management has accompanied me from a restaurant, but this time was much more amicable.
On my second visit I’m greeted by a young lad who I assume is on an INSET day. He hands me an invoice pad and asks me to write down what I want. He serves the dishes when they emerge, pausing en route just to sprinkle some fresh coriander over my beans. It turns out he’s still in primary school and having a half day for the next day’s Chinese New Year celebrations. He proudly shows me pictures of cakes from their bakery as well as his favourite dishes here. It’s his parents’ place: they should be very proud of him. He’s a natural.
Green beans impressive. It’s a salutary reminder that your 5 a day can be improved immeasurably with the addition of some pork mince, a generous payload of soy sauce and plenty of chilli oil. It’s a dish best eaten there and then as the greens don’t linger brilliantly, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
Stir fried beef is another plate big on aroma. Sichuan peppercorns mean it trails the telltale lemony scents, instead of the pure pungency of black pepper and chilli. It’s aromatic, vibrant and not to be taken lightly, and runs the lamb close as the one you’ll want to tell people about when you eat here. Don’t pick around the little depth charges – in for a penny, in for 9.07 Yuan, as they say in Macclesfield and Aberbargoed.
Get stuck in, and feel that characteristic tingle on your lips. Anything which makes your lips tingle has to be a good thing; and after all, what’s a little hydroxy-alpha sanshool (C16H25NO2, chemical compound fans) between friends?
Not that chilli is neglected here- it comes loaded with bright splashes of both dried and fresh red chillies, the meat beautifully done. This is exactly the heft I came looking for. And that’s why I’m recommending this menu with some enthusiasm. Old Sichuan specialises in roll-your-sleeves-up, plonk-your-elbows on the table and get stuck in kind of eating. Not fancy, not fussy: rugged at times, robust, but above all satisfying.
Bushtucker trial or no, call it novelty eating if that’s your thing. You have plenty of scope here. Go expecting a fairly basic set-up, but go expecting to meet some substantial flavour.
52 Cowbridge Road East
Opens 11.30am every day; until 10pm TUES-WED-THUR; until 11pm FRI, SAT, SUN, MON
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A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
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