Xin Wei Kitchen’s alternate menu unlocks top-notch Sichuan cuisine
The expertly prepared and boldly delicious dishes offered on the by-request Chinese menu make Xin Wei a must-visit
The Sichuan food was so impressive at Xin Wei Kitchen that, even though I got off on the wrong foot at the restaurant, I left dancing (read: moving erratically).
Inhabiting a narrow but tidy little Northwest Side space formerly occupied by Bahn Thai, Xin Wei Kitchen was super-busy a few weeks ago when I asked about seating on its covered patio. As my harried server explained that the patio had already been claimed that evening, she waved new entrants to the lone available indoor table.
After pointedly mentioning that I’d arrived before those new entrants, my server shrugged, sat me down at that same last available table and handed me an exhaustingly large menu rife with Chinese American fare.
When I inquired about other menus — vibrant-looking food on the three other utilitarian dining-room tables suggested one existed — I was brusquely presented with a different menu that listed numerous Sichuan dishes.
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I ordered several of these even though my server warned me I might be unhappily surprised. I understood her reservations: Unlike many ordering from that supplemental menu — whose recently translated offerings include boiled bullfrog and spicy duck blood — I’m not fluent in Mandarin.
But I’m conversant in Sichuan food. While I didn’t request any bullfrog or duck blood that night, I jumped on cuisine classics energized with chile and tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, such as “Szechuan style mouthwatering chicken” ($10.95).
Xin Wei’s nuanced version featured a zesty yet caramel-like gravy (not just routine chile oil), crushed peanuts, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns and succulent meat served — as anticipated and per my server’s caveats — hacked into chilled lumps containing skin and bone. The aptly named result was a big, moderately spicy dish with undertones of peanut butter, pepper and honey.
For poultry that’s easier to eat with chopsticks, pick the boneless Chongqing spicy chicken ($14.95). Essentially meaty, popcorn-style fried chicken amped-up with dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, this crackly-yet-tender rendering of the classic might be the biggest and best in town.
Ditto for the Mapo tofu, called “braised bean curd with minced pork” on the menu ($12.95). A characteristically huge portion of wiggly bean curd was swamped in a glimmering red-orange bath of chile oil intensified with fermented black soybeans, powdered Sichuan peppercorns and a generous amount of firm, flavorful ground pork.
The dry-fried string beans ($12.95), another cuisine staple, had the expected shriveled-from-high-heat long green beans and salty “ma la” (numbing and spicy) accouterments. But it also had unexpected-yet-appreciated fried braided wheat noodles, which contributed crunchy and faintly sweet, cracker-like counterpoints.
“Dramatic” isn’t an adjective I associated with cabbage. Then I ordered Xin Wei’s hand-torn cabbage in dry pot ($12.95). The vegetable arrived with a dramatic snap, crackle and pop in a big black pot atop a chafing-dish-like flame. Its dynamic flavor — propelled by soy, vinegar, garlic, leeks, Sichuan peppercorns and jalapenos — deepened and sweetened the longer it sizzled.
Sliced beef in sour soup ($18.95) is a Sichuan dish that isn't as well-known or as available around town as it should be. Shaved meat — think fat-strewn Philly-steak beef — joined lengthy segments of cucumber and celery, plus wood ear fungus (enoki mushrooms are more common) in a telltale lively yellow broth I loved.
If the thought of slurping a spicy, gurgling hot soup whose beefy underpinnings are countered by notes of pickle juice and Wishbone Italian dressing doesn’t sound interesting, maybe that isn't for you. But if you’re game for something both soothing and punchy, do what I did: Ask for the “Chinese menu” (I had to do this every visit) and listen to — but don’t be unduly unnerved by — your server’s warnings.
Here’s one warning you shouldn't ignore, though: If Xin Wei’s bold Sichuan dishes make you want to break out into a potentially erratic-looking jig, fight that urge off.
Xin Wei Kitchen
1932 Henderson Rd., Northwest Side