The small-plates craze has forced even the most dilettantish diners to add new words to their culinary lexicon: “tapas,” “meze,” cichetti, antojitos. One term, however, hasn’t yet made the list: xiaochi.
Rockville’s China Canteen isn’t going out of its way to make it a household name, either. Its traditional Sichuan xiaochi (“small eats”) are squarely aimed at the party faithful—this isn’t crowd-pleasing fusion. Take a dish of sliced chicken with scallion sauce: Your local Hunan Hut would likely serve you slices of trimmed breast meat. At China Canteen, you get the skin, some of the gristle, and perhaps a bone or two. The chicken looks, and tastes, like a bird.
Such an offering might not seem overly exotic to a dim-sum junkie, but China Canteen presents a different experience. There are no rolling carts, and whereas dim sum is largely comprised of dumplings and steamed buns, the Sichuanese xiaochi—priced from $1 to $7 and involving various preparations of meats, seafood, and preserved vegetables—mostly rely on noodles for their starch. Many are served cold, but heat is rarely absent.
Prime your palate with some sliced baby conch, tender and not at all chewy, topped with slivered scallions and dressed in chili oil. But this isn’t the usual dull chili heat—this dressing carries a peppery, numbing sharpness. The Sichuanese make a distinction between these flavors, and soon you will, too. Pace yourself, though—immobilize your entire jaw, and you’ll spoil the courses that follow. If you’re not Chinese, the staff has probably already offered you ice water. Don’t be proud; take it.
Chili oil is a mainstay of Sichuan cuisine. Many cold dishes simply bathe a basic ingredient in it. Diced cucumber with chili oil is a great marriage, heat and coolness in one bite. The same goes for eggplant with spicy sauce; the taste of the chilled vegetable punches through and mixes happily. Sichuan pickled cabbage with red hot sauce is another winner, the leaves neither too crunchy nor too soft. The Sichuan wontons, however, are dominated by their hot sauce, the delicate pork flavor almost lost.
There are other meat choices that can easily stand up to aggressive seasoning, at least in theory. Offal is often paired with chilies, with numerous selections of tripe, intestines, and kidneys available. Braised intestines with scallion sauce arrive bubbling over a brazier, yet are still undercooked. A friend compared them on one visit to rubber bands. Their sauce, however, made with hot bean paste and cubes of gelled blood, is dark, sharp, and spicy—an excellent production, if only the meat were fit.
As you branch out from the xiaochi and into the full-size dishes, choosing wisely can get still trickier for non-Mandarin speakers. China Canteen’s clientele is overwhelmingly Chinese, and the specials are posted untranslated on the wall. As you wade through the menu, the servers will tend to leave you alone until you wave them over. When they see you are truly interested in the food, they perk up, but they’ll likely be unsure about what you’d enjoy.
It pays to tell them: Being on your own to pick a combination yields hit-or-miss results, as the English menu descriptions often follow a “meat with something” pattern. Even when they don’t, the wording can be quite vague: The “whole fish” we ordered one night went unidentified for a time. “I can’t remember the English name,” the server said in Chinese, “and we already threw away the box.” (She finally came up with “Icelandic flounder.”) You can order it steamed or fried, with a choice of four toppings. Steamed with “crispy bean sauce” is not the best choice; the fish is cooked perfectly, but the gritty, crumblike topping adds little, somehow being both dry and greasy at once.
But that’s an exception among the otherwise outstanding seafood dishes—unexpected from a kitchen versed in traditionally meat-centric Sichuan cuisine. Conch is again a good choice when stir-fried with basil leaves. Squid “home style” with sliced cloud-ear mushrooms also features a tricky creature cooked just right. Fish in sour cabbage sauce arrives in a shallow bowl with rice noodles, like a soup, the pale brown broth giving little hint of its remarkable, pepper-based mouth-numbing power. The weak cabbage plays only a supporting role, but the delicate fish is infused with the broth’s kick. The leftover broth was enough to spice up my homemade stir-frys for the next week.
Ordering some nonspicy choices for contrast is a standard strategy, but here is where the kitchen may falter. Scallion pancakes, for instance, are crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, but the steamed scallion buns are nothing but dough. Strangely, neither have much scallion inside. Likewise, stir-fried snow-pea leaves are sadly mishandled, a bit overcooked, and not as crunchy as is ideal.
For the non-chili-heads who still want food with a bit of an edge, anything prefaced by yu-shiang, heralding a basic brown garlic sauce, is a good compromise—particularly the eggplant. Even tamer, the stuffed-shrimp-and-tofu balls in white sauce would be acceptable to anyone, though it’s hard to spot or taste any shrimp inside the overwhelming but very tender tofu.
The great thing about small plates, though, is that compromise is usually unnecessary. Finding something for everyone is a small and rewarding investment—and doubly rewarding with Sichuan cuisine, which is typically pigeonholed for its unrelenting heat. Get some offal. Get the pickled cabbage. Get the tofu balls. Get the sweet-potato pancakes with red-bean paste for dessert. In the process, the surprising range of Sichuanese food will reveal itself.
But it’s still best if you like it hot.
China Canteen, 808 Hungerford Drive, Rockville. (301) 424-1606.—Tom McClive
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