Chinese food has been repeating on me recently, by which I mean I’ve found myself thinking about it with some regularity. I find that thinking about food is a good way to promote a healthy intellectual appetite for the subject. It’s a pre-digestion process. I’ve been thinking specifically about how our (western) pre-conceptions about Chinese food (the phrase really does contain multitudes) correlate with the kinds of Chinese restaurants that we get, with the trends that emerge and persist. I clearly haven’t been thinking about ways to hook those readers in with an opening paragraph. This over-thinking was spurred by a trip to New York City last month – the plague had taken our annual pigrimage (not a typo) off the menu for the last two years and we returned with a dining vengeance. I’m also aware that I’m not writing this for Totally NYC (would that it were so) but if you’ll bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.
Prior to the restaurant in question here, the last place I had enjoyed dumplings was in one of those Chinatown places that food writers tend to describe as no frills. This is a failure of language. The absence of frills in this joint is profound indeed. If the good folks of Shu Jiao Fu Zhou were to come into contact with even the meanest of frills, with the unspoken suggestion of frill, there could be a rupture in the very fabric of space and time. You get treadplate floor, buzzing fluorescents and a spectrum of humans united in knowing a bargain when they see it. When my turn at the counter came, I ordered the delightful sounding Fish Bone Soup only to be looked up and down and rebuffed with, “Too many fish bone, you have fish ball soup,” I just weakly muttered, “Fair enough,” and backed away with my numbered ticket, choosing not to lay out my (not insignificant) fish-bone creds. Noted gourmand and war criminal Vladimir Putin would probably have labelled him a fish bone soup nazi. With the training-wheels-round-eye soup, some killer pork and chive dumplings and a paper plate of peanut sauce wheat noodles (and a Coke) our bill came to $10.50. This is what we used to expect from (sit down) Chinese restaurants when they began to appear on Parnell Street 15-20 years ago. Cheap food that was suspiciously delicious for the price. Those steals don’t really exist anymore in Dublin but neither (with a couple of exceptions) does the higher end.
The general trend of the past decade (in cities like New York and London) has been the exploration of regionality, with Sichuan and Hunan cuisines tending to be the default settings, both analogues for a specific kind of supposed authenticity. In New York we go to a place called Szechuan Mountain House on St Mark’s to eat the best Mapo Tofu imaginable. We eat other things too. There’s a perceptible tonal difference in these 2.0 places, a justified pride in not explaining and not dumbing down for delicate-bellied crackers. Back here we understandably lag behind those megacities, but we’re at least spoon-fed the exotic concepts of MaLa (numbing pepper) and sweat-drenching hot-pots by early educators like the M&L. Places like Hakkahan in Stoneybatter suggest our version of a second wave. This brings us laboriously to our third way, my third category. One of the hottest tickets in New York right now is a place called Bonnie’s. It’s in Brooklyn and its Chinese-American chef proudly touts his food as an evolution of Cantonese cooking, that boring, flavour-gelded shit that your parents tolerated. Well, how about a bowl of fuyu cacio e pepe mein washed down with an MSG dirty martini? Like Dave Chang and Danny Bowien (Momofuku & Mission Chinese Food respectively) did before him, Calvin Eng works to confound the preconceptions – is it cheap or difficult to pronounce? – to plate up food that is at once respectful and playful within parameters of ‘Chinese’ food that he himself sets. The questions shrink back to ‘does it taste good, and will people pay for it?’
Big Fan on Aungier St belongs to this third way. At the very least, I imagine that they would wish to identify as such on Instagram. You’re here for dumplings, bao and relentless noise. Night time sound levels will test the tolerance not just of boomers but Gen Xers and even geriatric Millennials. Sorry Clara, that’s you. They raise their voices over the music and you then need to raise your voice over both. Throw in a lot of hard surfaces and you’ve got a recipe for some truly cacophonous din dins. Whatever that old chestnut about beginning to eat with your eyes, we thankfully don’t eat with our ears. I would have been fit to bursting within minutes. You’ll need to acclimate to the room first – it feels like being in a lego-made discotheque in 1983, possibly in Manilla. Adjust your eyes to a purely pink-green spectrum of neon rheum and then squint your way through the x-marks the spot bingo-card menu. The bao are good across the board, the fried chicken only slightly less good than the sensuously melting pork belly (featuring Andarl pork and pickled mustard greens). Slightly too much bao perhaps but that’s a matter of taste.
Those cheeseburger dumplings are good too and not just because the cultural cross-over is hilarious. That ironic spicebag thing stopped being funny a long time ago too. It was surely only ever funny to imbeciles. The quality of the beef (described as Wagyu) is apparent, the pickle and cheese just so. ‘The Legend of the Ox’ is something of a standout with long, slow-cooked shin beef and mushroom encased in a Ketaifi pastry hedgehog. We also enjoy perfectly rare slices of featherblade steak, hot with ufra pepper and deeply savoury with the bang of fermented black bean. The vaunted Duck Wings (deep-fried legs) didn’t fly however, with the flesh clinging grudgingly to the bones.
Service is pleasant and accommodating throughout and never more so than when recommending cocktails. Don’t sleep on them, they really defied expectations. The fact that I can’t remember the names of the two I had is a testament to their potency. The food is not quite as accomplished, or as composed, as at Hang Dai down the street. That is a restaurant that works very hard to look as if they’re just fucking around. Fans of inventive, big-hearted Chinese food however would do well to apprentice here before graduating there. Bring a group and shout words across the table, pound a few cocktails and enjoy yourself. You’ll be a long time dead.
Words: Conor Stevens
16 Aungier St