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Power Lunch: Authentic Chinese, calibrated for western expectations

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By Eric Ruth

As the nation is dragged ever deeper into the manure-flinging, Twitter-baiting free-for-all that defines 21st century political discourse, it’s kind of nice to know that most Americans seem wholly united on at least one thing.

No matter whether you’re one of those progressive, I’ll-try-anything culinary cliff-jumpers, or an unapologetic defender of old-school meat-and-potatoes values, U.S.-bred diners tend to recoil as a nation when it comes to 100% authentic, damn-the-fish-eyeballs, full-speed-ahead Chinese food:

First comes that moment of naive confusion, of still-hopeful disbelief: “Tendons? They don’t mean tendon-tendons … do they?” Then, hushed exclamations of barely contained alarm, as the offal reality becomes clear: “Why yes, they do mean tendons” – and they are plopped onto the menu in all their gelatinous glory alongside jiggly beef stomachs and barnyard-perfumed pig intestines and bone-in frog appendages and all of the other chewy, gristly, cartilage-ey treats that Chinese families gnaw with endless satisfaction.

So you can probably imagine how tricky this is to say, and how hard today’s task will be: The citizenry needs to know that it’s high time for us foreign-food-fearing Americans to break the bounds of our shared reluctance, free ourselves from our innard-avoiding instincts, and enjoy some real Chinese food for a change.

Happily, it’s easy to be brave at a pace like Chef Tan, and still bypass the snout-to-tail peculiarities. For now, forgo the black fungus ($6.95), pass on the pork kidney ($14.95), and save your superhero food adventures for less buttoned-up moments. Arrive ready for a relaxed and leisurely lunch, order a few entrees for the table to share – in true Chinese style – and sit back to enjoy the pleasant, updated design touches that sets Chef Tan apart from so many dusty, fusty Chinese-American restaurants.

Such a comparatively upscale atmosphere encourages closer contemplation of this capable kitchen’s strongest suit: The revered cuisine of China’s Sichuan province, a place where the slow back-burn of chilies is usually accompanied by the lip-numbing and oddly pine-scented perfume of Sichuan peppercorns, and often fortified by the funky, savory backbone of fermented fava-bean paste.

Yes, these brash-but-harmonious flavors will surely seem so unfamiliar at first – but don’t all love affairs start with unfamiliar interludes? For business gatherings where gastronomical alarm might prove  counterproductive, stick with Chef Tan’s nice assortment of easy-to-like $7.95 lunch specials, each available with your choice of meat: The cumin-scented stir-fry with chicken is a crowd favorite, as are the scallion-laced stir fry, the peanut-besotted kung pao chicken, the fermented black bean dish, and the classic Sichuan “twice-fried” dish (get the fish).

Be sure to precede it all with a couple of shared apps, just to liven the chitchat and get the group dynamic going: Scallion pancakes ($3.95) are filling, flaky wonders when dipped in this soy-saucy sauce; Dan-Dan Noodles with ground beef ($7.50) satisfy in the same seductive way as a bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce. For some unexpected appeal, try these fluffy, doughy steamed buns stuffed with pork ($7.95), or the paradigm-shifting cold cucumber dish tossed in a mildly vinegary, sweet-and-spicy dressing (a must-try, even at the astronomical $6.95 per cuke).

If by now you haven’t concluded that Chef Tan has successfully nudged our expectations of Chinese food into a better, brighter place, a deeper dive into the entrees should make it certain: The kitchen’s stellar “Dry Pot” dish ($12.95-$24.95) is full of veggies and choice-of-meat, simmering slowly in a Sterno-warmed mini-wok, and chocked full of savory, just-spicy-enough appeal. The “Green Peppercorn Hot Sauce” dish ($12.95-$18.95) arrives in similarly awe-inspiring fashion: A broad bowl brimming with saucy sliced meat, crunchy bean sprouts and tender bok choy, topped with a semi-incendiary layer of red chili oil, and easily enough for two (or three) to share.

It quickly becomes clear here that the slow burn of dried chili peppers is practically elemental to such Sichuan creations, but the heat is rarely ramped up to uncomfortable levels here – anyone who enjoys a medium-hot batch of chicken wings will surely find room to love the “Hot Spicy Pot” dish ($13.95-$18.95), served again in a flame-licked wok and full of meat and somewhat other-wordly vegetables, glazed all over with savory bean paste and chili oil.

Milder flavors and vegetarian inclinations are honored here, too: Try the well-crafted wontons in chicken broth ($6.95), the decidedly un-greasy vegetarian spring rolls ($3.95), or the Hunan-style cauliflower ($12.95). But frequent diners will probably decide, once assimilated to the not-unpleasant pleasant sensations of numbing heat (called “ma-la”), that the sass of the bolder dishes capture our true devotion: Each bite of the “Chongquing Style” tilapia in oil-slicked broth ($26.95) carries with it a deftly balanced presence of prickly peppercorn heat and briny lushness.

Just be careful not to bite directly into those Sichuan peppercorns, unless you’re ready for some numb-lipped lunch conversations. And, just for now, do resist the urge to try those pig intestines, and leave the frog parts for more frivolous moments. Someday, you may find room to love the squiggly extremes of Chinese cuisine, but for now, there’s no reason to go too far -especially when going just far enough is more than enough to change your world.

“¢ Food and service: The mostly Chinese clientele and deft execution of dead-on-authentic Sichuan classics are good evidence that Chef Tan is capable of forever lifting our grease-laden expectations of Chinese food. Ready-made for a fun and invigorating occasion, despite the staff’s occasional language difficulties and the menu’s occasional embrace of ingredients that are frankly frightening to Western tastes.

“¢ Ambiance/elegance factor: Miles above the hackneyed and dated decor of most Chinese-American shops, this is a place well-enough suited to any get-together, from client meetings to all-in office excursions. (Lunch entrees $7.95-$28.95)

“¢ Catering: No

“¢ Takeout/delivery: Available/Grubhub.

“¢ Private tables: Not available.

“¢ Meeting-ready? No.

“¢ Perfect for: Fun lunches in need of a good group dynamic and some pizazz.

Ң Tech-readiness: No Wi-FiӢ Allergy-friendly? Beware Рingredients are listed sparsely, and communication can be difficult.

“¢ The buzz: Stick with the familiar lunch specials when hoping to avoid any awkward surprises, but be sure to let your freak-flag fly when everyone’s ready to take the wild ride of real Sichuan cuisine.

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