I fancy myself a bit of a foodie. It’s pretty much the only thing fancy about me, unless you count my soft, writerly hands.
But I am a rank amateur compared to Dave “The Food Dude” Cathey. Everything I know I learned from Dave, including the alphabet and how to walk. So when Mr. Cathey, or “dad” as I call him, told me about the soon-to-open Tsubaki Szechuan, I listened.
“Greg,” he said. “Please get off my lap.”
After I did, he said, “If you promise to never do that again, I’ll tell you about a really good restaurant.”
It was a hard choice, but I did it. I did it for you.
Sharold and I met at Tsubaki Szechuan for lunch and were presented with a menu so large and enticing that ordering became a bit of an ordeal. Our poor server circled back to us at least three times before we could decide on anything. Seriously, spend some time with that menu and you’ll see what I mean.
Despite Ms. Guyse’s past veganity, she’s recovered nicely and was more than game to tackle some of the weirder dishes on the menu. That said, the easiest choice was the first one: pork dumplings in chili oil ($6.95).
My love for dumplings borders, like everything else in my life, on the unhealthy. It’s meat stuffed inside pasta. Crumble some Oreos on top and call it a day, amirite?
As with most dumplings, my only problem was that there weren’t an infinite number of them rolling toward my mouth on an endless conveyor belt. Something like a savory version of this:
The pork was tender and juicy and the chili oil added a zing of heat, but nothing too crazy. Fresh garlic on top of the dish cut right through the richness of the meat and had me craving more more more.
We opted for something less meaty, but just as garlicky, for the second course. Eggplant in garlic sauce ($9.95) was a visual masterpiece. The sauce left each piece of eggplant glistening and caused an almost oil-slick rainbow effect on the purple skin.
The kitchen used small eggplants, which cuts down on the bitterness that you can sometimes get when they grow too large. The garlic sauce was sweet and buttery, which made this probably the best eggplant I’ve ever eaten.
When I think about Szechuan food, I think about heat. That’s because those Chinese geniuses figured out how to use Szechuan pepper to effectively numb the mouth as a staging ground for extremely spicy dishes.
Here’s an honest-to-blog scientific paper on what an active ingredient in Szechuan pepper does to nerves. It makes your lips and tongue feel like they’re vibrating. It’s kind of awesome.
If you’d like to experience it for yourself, nab a bowl of Sichuan style braised beef noodle soup ($10.95).
The soup is intensely aromatic. Breathe it in and sip it gently. The beef is tender and tasty, the noodles are slippery and the heat is no joke. Thank goodness for the Orajel-style numbing, which allowed us to keep eating.
The grand finale was the enormous Wanzhou-style grilled whole fish ($25.95). If you’re looking for a low-profile meal, you should avoid eating with me. Not only am I up and down the entire time taking pictures like some kind of moronic food paparazzi, I tend to order the dishes that cause the most commotion.
In this case, it was the entire steamer tray of bubbling broth and vegetables below an enormous head-on, tail-on, skin-on, bones-in fish.
“How, uh...how should I eat this?” I asked our server. She kindly directed me to use the giant spoon to crack into the center portion of the fish and get ready to dodge some bones. This is going to be a little messy, okay? You’re going to pull a bone or seven out of your mouth. It’s normal. Fish have bones. Just deal with it.
The trade-off for a little extra work is an incredibly flavorful fish with mildly sweet meat that goes very well with the crunchy onions and peppers and soft, chewy mushrooms. There’s still plenty of heat (peppers, remember?), but that’s why we ate the braised beef BEFORE we attacked the fish.
Honestly, we scratched the surface at Tsubaki, so don’t be surprised to see updates to this review in the weeks and months and years and decades to come. If you’re reading this in 2042 on your holo-eye implants, welcome!
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1117 NW 25th St.
Thurs-Tue 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., 5 - 9 p.m.
Facebook - @TsubakiSzechuan
Pork wontons in chili oil - $5.95
Eggplant in garlic sauce - $9.95
Sichuan style braised beef noodle soup - $10.95
Wanzhou-style grilled whole fish - $25.95