Authentic, Chile-Heavy Favorites at Metro Café
The restaurant sign displaying two gigantic red chilies stopped me in my tracks. Could it be? Yes, it was—a proper Sichuan restaurant, opened in March, on Brooklyn's Eighth Avenue Chinatown stretch. The neighborhood is home to fantastic hand-pulled noodle joints, Cantonese dim sum and seafood palaces, and Taiwanese bakeries, but had previously been completely deficient in the chile-oil-slicked pleasures of Sichuan cuisine. Metro Café fills that gap, but along with a selection of about 20 Sichuan dishes, the menu also lists an odd assortment of grilled skewers, a large selection of Japanese snacks, and a grilled T-bone special, the kind that you might find at a diner in Kansas. "Not everyone likes spicy," explained the friendly proprietor, an energetic businesswoman. She told me that the skewers are popular Beijing-style street food and that the Japanese items are there to lure in tea-time (or beer-time) late-afternoon snackers. She had previously worked at a Japanese restaurant in Whitestone, and her husband is a chef specializing in Sichuan cuisine (their families come from the province), so the restaurant's multi-culti approach actually makes perfect sense. Predictably, though, the Sichuan dishes are the best—and the most popular.
The skewer grill is set in the front window, where the sight of fat-dripping lamb or glinting, silver-skinned smelts draws people in. A flat-screen on the wall plays the Food Network all day and night—it's kind of hilarious to watch Paula Deen's frozen grin while eating hot-sauce tripe in Chinatown—and there are about eight large tables, which are half-full most of the time.
Some of the expensive restaurants in Manhattan could take lessons in customer service from the extremely pleasant folks at Metro Café. One night, our party of four BYOB'd white wine. As soon as we sat down, a cook brought out a bucket of ice from the kitchen, so we could keep it chilled, and our server kept our glasses full, while bringing out the food at a good pace and chatting to us about the spicy food. The small staff is welcoming to everyone, and also very efficient: When I went in for take-out a few times, I was always offered a glass of tea and some conversation about the neighborhood while I waited.
The Sichuan menu starts out with small, cold dishes, and they are spectacular. The cold ox tripe and tongue in hot sauce is particularly good, with chewy, mild slices of honeycomb tripe slicked with a brick-red hot sauce and generously sprinkled with sesame seeds, cilantro, and chopped peanuts. The tripe's spongy network of honeycombed crevices is an excellent sauce-delivery system, so that each bite yields a gush of sauce. Hidden under the billowy tripe, there are thin slices of lean ox tongue, which have a delicate, mineral tang. The same dish is offered with fat-ribboned, slippery pig's ear, translucent, chewy beef tendon (delicious), or shredded chicken.
Although the notion of appetizers isn't part of the Chinese tradition, the menu lists about a dozen of them, including admirably crispy salt-and-pepper squid and equally good Taiwanese fried chicken. Other options are the Beijing-style skewers (five for $1—a real deal) and the Japanese snacks. The best skewers are the bouncy, dense fried-beef balls, the deliciously gamey, charred lamb, and the whole smelts. Each skewer is dusted with chile powder before being served. Of the Japanese snacks—fried-potato croquettes, fried oysters, and barbecued squid—I especially liked the grilled rice balls: two small triangles of sticky rice, caramelized on the grill and drizzled with sweet eel sauce.
Among the Sichuan main dishes, there is hardly a bad choice in the bunch. The only one to skip is the Kung bao shrimp: wan little shrimp in a fairly lackluster stir-fry. Other than that, it's hard to go wrong, although the brevity of the menu means that you might mourn the lack of dan dan noodles, wantons in spicy oil, tea-smoked duck, or any lamb preparations. Remember to tell your server that you like spicy food, or "mala" (meaning that distinctive Sichuan combo of tingly Sichuan peppercorns and spicy chilies).
Metro Café's double-cooked pork is as good as the best renditions I've had at Bay Ridge's Grand Sichuan House or various spots in Flushing. Truly, this is a fantastic dish—a pungent mix of leeks, hot green chilies, and bite-size strips of fat-striated pork belly, stir-fried with salty fermented black beans, a generous scattering of Sichuan peppercorns, and fat slices of garlic and ginger.
The dish identified on the English menu as sautéed dry chicken with three kinds of peppers is also known as Chongqing chicken, after the Sichuan city of the same name. It's a dish of nubbins of fried chicken, tossed with a huge quantity of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Metro Café's version has larger bits of chicken, and perhaps not enough peppercorns, but it's delicious nevertheless. If you like heat, don't be afraid to eat the dried red peppers: They're browned in oil until their flavor is toasty and deep. Also worth ordering is the braised fish fillet in chile sauce. It arrives in a shallow dish, looking like a molten lake of fiery red sauce—the surface is covered with a slick of chile oil—with pieces of fish submerged just below the surface. Although Metro Café is lacking a main lamb dish, the beef with Sichuan special sauce reminded me of the cumin-heavy lamb Chengdu. The slices of beef are very tender, and walloped with cumin, green chilies, and peppercorns.
It took four visits to Metro Café before the proprietor pulled out the all-Chinese menu and translated it for me: sea cucumber, cubed pig's blood, cuttlefish, etc. I had hit the culinary jackpot—although it later occurred to me that the Sichuan dishes on the English-language menu had been just as great. Part of what's weirdly appealing about Metro Café is its inclusive spirit: You can order a grilled steak and Japanese rice balls, and follow it up with pig's blood and that addictively delicious double-cooked pork.
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