We sit at one of seven diner-style booths and the waitress promptly brings the menu and tea. Across town, main street diners circle the block for parking while others huddle in cold entryways before sitting down to spoon and fork through carefully planned prix-fixe menus. It’s January. It’s restaurant week in Ann Arbor. It’s time to venture out.
Tiny enamel tea cups warm our hands as the hot tea urges on our hunger. We read past the Chinese characters to their loosely translated English equivalents, knowing no matter how long we weigh our options, the dishes they’ll serve will exceed the forecast of their descriptions. We order, certain we’ll be taking home tomorrow’s lunch.
The “Home-style buns” and the “Shanghai-style pork buns” arrive first. I like to lay the foundation for big Chinese meals by eating at least a dozen dumplings. While the home-style buns (Baozi), house-made puffs of sweet, fluffy dough with scallion and ground pork filling, hit the spot, the Shanghai-style pork buns (Xiaolongbao) are black-out good. A ball of pork, cut with minced ginger, swims in a spoonful of hot broth sealed inside the dumpling skin. And there’s a technique to eating this: Bite a tiny hole in the top side of the dumpling. Slurp the broth. Eat the remains. Repeat a dozen times.
In the mirror that runs the length of the restaurant, we see our server and an assistant approaching with the rest of our meal, which, when we turn to see the dishes, looks like a double order even without the mirror’s echo effect. “Chicken wings,” “Garlic eggplant,” “Sichuan fish,” a dish called “Ants on a tree” (this one isn’t on either menu, traditional or American, but they have it if you ask for it) and a ramekin of white rice later, and I’m lumbering away from the table like fat Buddha from the temple.
Crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside, the chicken wings come dusted with a garlic and star anise powder. And garlic eggplant is a Sichuanese staple—chilli bean paste, soy, vinegars, rice wine, sugar for mellowing, ginger, clove, and scallions. Water chestnuts add a crunchy structure to this otherwise soft dish.
Come for the spice or don’t come at all. The humming novocaine effect of Sichuan peppercorns sets the stage for the “hot” spices, which, by the time the numbness sets in, are in essence unnoticeable. Sichuan fish would be, perhaps, my death-row meal. A serving bowl brims with chili-laced broth, bok choy, garlic, toothpick-size slices of ginger, enough Sichuan peppercorn for a root canal, and delicate hunks of unidentified fish soaking up the alchemy of it all. Spooned over rice, this stuff is illegally good.
On the topic of hot and spicy broth I should mention Evergreen prepares hot pot, a communal-table dining experience. Picture a large stainless steel pot split in two sitting atop a portable butane stove. One side of the pot contains hot broth spiked with flaming chilies. The other side contains a well-seasoned Pho-like stock. For a leisurely meal, cook beef, pork, lamb, fish, tofu, and vegetables by dipping them in whichever simmering oily broth suits you.
With a twist of spicy glass noodles and ground pork and shiitake (ants on a tree) squeezed between my chopsticks—I can barely breathe I’m so full—our server, who has attentively filled our water glasses throughout the meal, offers to pack up the leftovers. The warmth of the service matches the spiciness of the food.
From a plate of freshly cut orange slices, I lift and crack open my fortune cookie which reads “We cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails.” Venturing out never felt so right.