Pig Brains and Tofu… Sheer Heaven

By on April 3, 2014

“Pig brains and tofu… sheer heaven!” Andrew Zimmern tweeted from central China, where he was filming an episode of his bet-you-can’t-eat-this TV show “Bizarre Foods”. “I’d say this was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten,” said I somewhat less eloquently after eating the very same dish in south Tulsa, “if I didn’t know I was eating pig brains.”

Tulsa’s not the kind of place you’d normally go for culinary adventures of the global kind. But a month or so ago Mandarin Taste got a new chef who learned his trade in Beijing and since his arrival their kitchen has been churning out dishes that blow my mind. Most of them are far more suited to your average Oklahoma palate than pig brains. If you were in Hong Kong and had the banquet that we had last Tuesday, you’d tell your friends that you had a meal you could never find at home. And you’d remember that meal all your life.

As soon as I walked in the door, I ordered my favorite appetizer.

Mandarin Taste Saliva Chicken

This is Saliva Chicken!! Actually the name is a mistranslation… the Chinese phrase really means mouth-watering; you see it and drool. The soft, tender chicken is boiled and allowed to cool before being drenched in a flavorful sauce featuring sesame oil, peanuts, chili oil, black vinegar, and Sichuan peppercorns. Somehow the rich sauce reminded me of bourbon aged in oak barrels. Everyone loved it and I had to restrain myself from spoiling my appetite by eating as much as I could shovel down. When I first reviewed Mandarin Taste a year ago, this and other Sichuan dishes weren’t as good as the dishes from the region around Beijing, but now the Sichuan dishes shine. The chef is equally adept with the cuisines of every region of China. Nowadays, the owner told me, city people in China eat dishes from all regions, and not just their own; they just eat what they love.

Ordering took forever. We peppered the owner, who is, thankfully, as friendly as you can wish and also fluent in English, with questions. I was seeking the most authentically strange dish they had, and my friends wanted the opposite. There are several menus in English, each lavishly illustrated with photos. I snagged the Chinese menu. It has 150 dishes listed, no English whatsoever, and no photos at all. There are sections for fish, shrimp, squid, pork, beef, and chicken, and then a separate section for pig innards. Three liver dishes, two stomach entrees, then seven pig intestine dishes, including soups, intestine with hot peppers, intestine with pickled garlic, intestine with crispy rice. I had the pickled garlic entree a few weeks earlier and I loved it. It had a rich earthy taste well complemented by the garlic. The menu then has three kidney entrees, and one brain. Which I ended up by ordering. There was a hot kidney soup I had my eyes on but the owner told me the brain was the best dish of all.

First came the green beans. I don’t remember ordering them but we were all glad someone did.

Mandarin Taste Green Beans

They were nice and crunchy, and coated with minced pork and a whole lot of different spices. Not too hot, just fine. The spices yielded sharp, strong flavors.

A big tureen was borne to the table. That was Cathe’s dish. Suan cai yu.

Mandarin Taste Fish CabbageSoup

Fish is the pride and joy of most Chinese restaurants. Many restaurants that don’t serve fish at all put “seafood” in their name just to show they have class. The Chinese menu at Mandarin Taste has nine different dishes. Most of them are soups. Usually I don’t like soup for dinner but these fish soups changed my mind. I’ve never seen anything like them. I think they might be influenced by Shandong cuisine, the most elusive of China’s great cuisines. Shandong cooks just love their soup. The owner thinks not, though, and she should know. I put one of these soups in my best dishes of 2013 list.

Hot Food in Tulsa

It’s one of the glories of Sichuan cuisine and about the hottest dish you’ll find. The name means water-boiled fish but it should be named “a ton of chilis with a bit of poached fish”. It’s delicious, so good I couldn’t stop eating even as it burned like a red-hot knife.

The other fish soups aren’t as spicy as that, though one, made with fresh green peppers, looks as if it could be a contender.

There are a few non-soup fish dishes on the menu, and the week before I ordered one.

Mandarin Taste Hot Fish

Hot, spicy, a lovely blend of rich, assertive flavors. I think they might have used Doubanjiang, a spicy, salty paste made from fermented beans and spices. The fish, a lovely tender white fish, didn’t have an assertive flavor. It was wonderful. It’s what they use in all the fish entrees. It’s swai, the owner told me. A kind of catfish from Vietnam.

Back to Cathe’s dish. Suan cai is a kind of fermented cabbage something like kimchi but without the funky flavor. It’s not easy to make. Suan cai fish soup is well-loved throughout China, though other regions use other greens instead of cabbage. (See http://reputablesources.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/35/ ) The cabbage, which we had here, is a northeastern thing… meaning the far northeast region next to North Korea. It used to be called Manchuria and it once ruled China. In addition to the sauerkraut-like cabbage, the soup featured soft translucent noodles made from sweet potatoes and a rich though mellow fish broth. It had a pleasant sour taste that I loved. I must add that Cathe didn’t like it much at all. “What’s not to like?” I said.

Meanwhile Magen got some pork buns.

Mandarin Taste Pork Buns

Mandarin Taste has a lot of buns, dumplings, and other wheat creations. Leave the Chinese coast and head north and inland and there’s another China, a land of wheat, dusty plains and long winters. It’s from this region that the owner comes, and buns are very popular there. For her next dish, Magen wanted to try the steamed pork belly, but I’d had it the week before.

The pork belly, which is basically bacon, is slow-cooked in wine and spices. It’s impossibly soft and bursting with flavor. It comes on a bed of preserved greens. That’s a Hakka dish, from just east of Canton, and it’s not like the suan cai at all. It’s sweet and goes perfectly with the bacon. Like pork and collard greens. The steamed bread (mantou) is very common in north China. I must say that this photo is from the restaurant Facebook page, because it was so good that we had eaten half the plate before I remembered to take this photo.

Mandarin Taste Bacon

So Magen ordered another dish, Double Cooked Pork.

Mandarin Taste Double CookedPork

Pork belly is simmered in spices — ginger and star anise — and is then cooled, sliced, and thrown in the wok. It’s a common dish in the U.S. but Mandarin Taste makes it better than most. Lots of chives and scallions thrown in the mix made this dish a winner for me. Magen hated it.

I didn’t care. My pork brains had arrived.

Pork

With squeamish hesitation I paused, then took up a big spoon and dug in. The brains were as soft as pudding and as rich as foie gras. They went well with the soft, pillowy tofu. I’m pretty sure the tofu was the super-soft tofu pudding known as douhua, which is appropriate since in northern China it is known as tofu brains. The rich red sauce wasn’t hot at all but it was bursting with flavor. Lots of Sichuan peppercorns and something fragrant, almost like perfume. It was so good! I tried not to think about what it was. (“They could serve this on noodles and call it Spaghetti Brainognese,” I said.) One Chengdu restaurant has become famous for this dish. (See http://www.eatdrinkchengdu.info/2011/03/ming-ting.html ) I think you have to go to China to get it. Until now.

Mandarin Taste never ceases to amaze. So many dishes I want to try. Here are a few, from their Facebook page.

Here’s a spicy kidney soup.

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You can get pig intestines stir-fried with chili.

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Or in a fiery soup.

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I love pig intestines. They have a rich flavor. If you didn’t know what they were, you’d love them too. But if you don’t want that, there’s stir-fried bone-in chicken with chili

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Or steamed bone-in chicken with mushrooms.

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Or if you want American-style, do what Betty did and order Kung Pao Chicken.

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Mu Shu Pork is another safe dish. There are always great vegetables too. Here’s Chinese broccoli, which Cathe ordered and loved a week ago.

MandarinTasteVegetables

It’s all good. If I’d found a restaurant like this in New York, I would have posted reviews to Chowhound.com and people from all over the city would have made the pilgrimage there.

Mandarin Taste
6125 S Sheridan
918-878-7998
Open daily from 11 AM to 8:30 PM

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola. “A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

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