Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lucky Strike: hitting the sweet (and spicy) spot?

After our trip to China last October, w and I have been pining for good Chinese food. Even a close approximation of what we had there would be okay. Unfortunately in Portland, that is proving next to impossible. Excellent Thai food? Sure. Vietnamese? Yeah, occasionally. But Chinese done with the care and simple complexity (and if you've had real Chinese food you know those words actually do go together) we had in Shanghai and Hong Kong seemed to be like searching for coherence in GWB's economic policy. It just hasn't been there. So a couple of weeks ago when our local fishwrap The Oregonian wrote up a new-ish Sichuan joint called Lucky Strike Chinese Restaurant, which Oregonian critic Roger Porter raved over recently. Could this be the answer? Appetites raging, we set out to find out.

To get there, you have to drive a fair distance out to the east side, the places where RV dealers, radiator repair places, and cigarette shops reign supreme. In fact, somewhat coincidentally, Lucky Strike is right next door to a cigarette store. We pulled in with our friends Monique and The Handsome One, and before we got out of the car were greeted with the sound of loudly breaking glass. Seems the guy who lives above the businesses tripped coming down the stairs and crashed into the glass security door of their apartment, shattering the glass. Luckily for him in a stunning reversal of the usual Darwinian process, and most likely due to the alcohol or drugs coursing through his system, he didn't cut himself so our entry into Lucky Strike wasn't needlessly delayed. We walked into the tiny dining room, maybe 25 or 30 seats scattered at tables around the room (with three or four seats at the counter) with a flat screen TV that was playing a fascinating show about a guy getting his legs waxed, painfully it seems, which may or may not be appetite inducing depending on your particular bent. Anyway, we dove right in with beers in hand, starting our Sichuan eating adventure with the Spicy Jellyfish Salad ($ left pic), Crispy Tofu ($4) and the JiaoZi (dumpling in spicy sauce. $4...both pictured at right). The jellyfish Salad was excellent, one of the highlights of the whole meal. Just right spicy, with perhaps a few too many chili seeds left in, but the jellyfish itself had a nice texture, not rubbery at all, and the flavor was bright and fresh. The Crispy Tofu was also good, nothing too special, with an odd dipping sauce with muddied flavors that we thought was shrimp paste based. Kind of a "meh" dish. Sadly the dumpling, in a nice red sauce, was too doughy and w thought he ground pork filling was way too dense.

Next up were Dan Dan Noodle ($4) and Mapo Tofu ($9....both at left). The Dan Dan was delicious, a small dish of noodles bracketed with little piles of seasoned ground pork and scallion. I was really looking forward to the Mapo Tofu, one of the defining dishes of Sichuan cooking. We had an incendiary version in Hong Kong, and I was hoping for that same flavor punch. But the LS version, while good, was lacking that intensity, that "holy fuck" factor that makes this a painfully satisfying dish. Where it hurts but you have to come back for more like a masochist saying "thank you, may I have another?" This wasn't that. Also coming out at this time was the Crispy Pig Intestine ($10...regrettably pictured at right), again something I hoped would equal the skewered deliciousness I had from a street vendor in HK. All I can say was this was one funky ass plate of food. Monique thought they didn't rinse the intestine enough times. I don't know what it was, but it tasted like something that was still part of the digestive process, and a little too close to one end of it than other, if you get my meaning.

Lastly on this excursion through the spicy heart of Chinese cooking we shared the Guinness Pork Ribs ($9), their signature Ants on the Tree ($8), and the Chive Stir Fried with Egg ($7....pictured at left). The pork ribs, which Porter raved bout in his review, were a sticky, too sweet mess. About an inch or so long, and with very tender meat, the sauce had been reduced too much into a gooey mess. But it was pork after all, so The Handsome One and I made them edible by dipping them into the leftover Mapo Tofu sauce to try and cut through the sweetness. The stir fried eggs were another highlight, the eggs scrambled in the wok, then the chives which were arranged on top. Simple, flavorful Chinese cooking at its best. The Ants on the Hill was ground pork (the "ants"), scallions, and spices mixed together with cellophane noodles which unfortunately had been overcooked to a congealed glop. The flavor was good, but the texture of the noodles took away from what should have been an excellent bite.

Overall, after eating our way through a fair representation of the menu, it was......okay. Very reasonably priced: all of the above plus six beers came to just $68! The Jellyfish Salad, Stir fried Eggs, and Dan Dan Noodles were some of the best Chinese food I've had in town. The irregularity of the other dishes, combined with the extreme funk of the Crispy Pig Intestines (that isn't a taste memory you want to carry with you, believe me) really took away much desire to come back. We probably will at some point, but it isn't a place I would rush back to.
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one year ago today @ E.D.T.: one of the loves of my culinary life, a.k.a. Spaghetti alla Carbonara!


Wandering Chopsticks said...

That looks pretty good for PDX standards. Which sadly, don't compare anywhere to LA standards.

bb said...

That's why it was so unsatisfying. PDX standards are nowhere near where they need to be. Sadly!

kab said...

Man, I was so hoping this place would live up to Porter's rave, but it sounds like he may have been having a little fantasy moment, alas.

The search goes on!

bb said...

Or maybe he had the good experience and ours was the anomaly. The search does go on, although I'm not optimistic.

Cam said...

Just ate here last week and it was awesome. Best Sichuan Chinese meal in the Pacific Northwest I've had. I lived outside of Chengdu, Sichuan for 6 months and thought that LS had the best representation of true Sichuan cuisine I've had in the states.

Sophie said...

the mapo tofu looks so delish!
this is really one of the simplest dishes to make anywhere in the world so long as you can get hold of tofu and sauce package.
Here I bought a sauce pack so as to skip all the seasonings! and i will try this friday after work.