I’ll admit it. When I first moved to the Bay Area last summer, I was so overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of Chinese restaurants that I mostly avoided them. I frankly didn’t want to make the wrong choice in Oakland or San Francisco’s Chinatown and sit down at a table of anything less than stellar. Sure, I’ve made a few pilgrimages to hipper-than-thou Mission Chinese, enduring painfully long waits for a table for a taste of Danny Bowien’s famous dish of the moment. I like Mission Chinese just fine, but I figured there had to be a restaurant somewhere in the area where dining was less of an ordeal.
Turns out, the perfect spot was right under my nose. Unfortunately it wasn’t open yet.
At the time, East Bay diners more knowledgeable than I were eagerly waiting for the beloved Albany Szechuan restaurant, China Village, to re-open after a devastating fire in the spring of 2012. Famous for its merciless use of chilies and thoughtful, ingredient-driven menu, China Village has long been recognized as one of the strongest Szechuan restaurants in the Bay Area. I learned of the restaurant shortly after it re-opened in July, and have been eating there at least once a month since.
The renovation brought more than just an update to the dining room. Chef John Yao expanded his chef’s specialties menu to include new duck and crab dishes, hot pot soups, and clay pot-cooked stews. In addition, China Village now stocks a full bar and offers a list of several quirky house cocktails, such as the Chinese Mule (Chinese baijiu spirits, ginger beer, cilantro, lime) and Chrysanthemum (dry vermouth, benedictine, absinthe, orange, chrysanthemum).
Since re-opening, the menu has been streamlined, placing even more emphasis on Szechuan-style cuisine and less on the formerly obligatory Cantonese staples. Service has also greatly improved over the last few months. Dishes appear quickly, accurately, and with a brisk smile.
The best way to eat at China Village is to gather a large enough group of adventurous friends to take up a huge round table in the back of the restaurant. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag one with a lazy Susan for optimum sharing capacity. Try to order dishes from most sections of the menu, and you’ll be able to balance the numbing ma la of the chili-laced dishes with simple, perfectly cooked sides.
Start with spicy beef tendon, chewy and refreshing, a palate (and sinus) cleanser to prime your tongue for the meal to come. Or else munch on the cucumber with drizzled with spicy, nutty garlic gravy. Don’t ignore the gratis pickled cabbage, a crisp and funky Chinese kimchi. Skip the predictable hot appetizers.
The spicy Szechuan boiled fish fillet is a perfect introduction to Chef Yao’s deft hand with chilies. Yao may be more famous for his fish with “1,000 chili peppers” and tender glass noodles, but the house made chili oil on the boiled fillet is reason enough to try it. Another famous dish, Yao’s five-spice hot and spicy pork shoulder, is equally great, succulent and soft enough to cut with a spoon. The warm spice blend penetrates the meat to the bone for subtly fragrant contrast to the bold flavors in the fish.
To me, a Szechuan meal would be incomplete without ma po tofu, and China Village serves two distinct versions. The vegetarian option is fiery hot, cooked in a wok, and not particularly memorable. Better is the dish cooked in a clay pot, studded with chopped shrimp — its broth is thick and creamy, rich with emulsified chili oil.
For those wishing for a milder bite, the house made noodle chow mein is a fine choice. The sauce and accompanying vegetables are nothing special, but the springy, toothsome noodles are some of the best in town. Less successful is the bland bacon-cut pork, greasy clay pot duck, and the chewy pickled pepper and diced chicken dish.
Accompanying vegetable dishes are hit or miss. The perennial favorite dry-cooked green beans are properly blistered and garlic oil-slicked most of the time, but will occasionally appear on the table as if rushed, barely cooked through, and lacking char. The under-seasoned Chinese greens (read: bok choy) stir-fried with black mushrooms makes one yearn for a platter of the earthy fungus alone. Umami-filled roasted garlic pea shoots and silky smooth eggplant with spicy garlic sauce are far superior.
There is still an impressively extensive list of dishes I have yet to try, but I’ll be happy to keep going back to China Village long after I do.
1335 Solano Avenue Albany, CA 94706
11am-2:30pm and 4-9:30pm Monday-Sunday
Recommended Dishes: spicy Szechuan boiled fish fillet, five spice hot and spicy pork shoulder, clay pot ma po tofu with prawns, homemade noodle chow mein, roasted garlic pea shoots, eggplant with spicy garlic sauce.
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
Read more of Kate William’s Nosh reviews:
Homestead: Seasonal DIY cooking done right (10.25.13)
Hutch: A hit and miss attempt at refined southern cooking (09.10.13)