Food

Authentic, Chile-Heavy Favorites at Metro Café

by

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.

sdigregorio@villagevoice.com