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There's Chinese food, and then there's authentic Chinese food. We all need a generic lo mein fix from time to time, and any number of pop-up take-out restaurants can accommodate that, but when you want to sit down and truly celebrate the genius that is Chinese cuisine, head out to Clinton's Taste of China.
Specifically, we're talking about Szechuan/Chengdu-style food, which means an emphasis on bold flavors and a wide world of spice. "Spicy" here doesn't have to mean tongue-numbing, tear-jerking eats, either. It certainly can, and several menu items at Taste can accomplish that (look for anything marked with three or more chili peppers on the menu), but "spicy" can also provide an example of how hot peppers can bring out the flavor in chicken, or cucumbers or cuttlefish.
As for bold flavors, bold flavor number 1 seems to be garlic in the best possible way. Start your meal with the Chengdu dumplings or the cold sesame noodles, and you'll see what I mean. But the garlic has a function here (beyond the pungent cloud that will surround you for about a day after). It creates a savory package that never overwhelms but entirely treats the palate to a distinct, multi-sensory-pleasing dish. It turns up the volume on the peanut in the noodles and offers a great anchor to the kick in the dumplings, which are a good entre for the spice-shy. Another more tame but no less delightful appetizer is the ginger-flavored string beans, cool, crisp beans dressed in finely diced ginger, some salt, and perhaps some peanut. If you like ginger, try this dish. Hey, it's a vegetable! - plus the beans' refreshing zip serves are a nice palate-cleanser.
But back to the spice. If you crave the heat, try the Western beef. Marked with three chili peppers, this designation is no joke. It won't have the initiated spice-hound plowing through glasses of water, but you are guaranteed a sweat. Tender slices of beef meet with bell peppers, zucchini sliced thin, bamboo shoots and onion in a pepper-flaked zesty sauce.
If sweating over a meal isn't your thing, loads of no- or one-pepper items fill out the menu. The Chicken with Cucumber is as delicious as it sounds. Who knew warmed cucumber is still refreshing? When it's prepped in a light, vinegar-y sauce with perfect chicken, and the cukes are chopped to a nice thickness, it most certainly is. It's a curious marriage of flavors that persuaded my non-cucumber-loving husband to give them many more chances.
However, there are happy mediums between spicy heat and none at all. Consider the tangy eggplant medallions, which live up to their intriguing name. Pork-stuffed eggplant slices are served lightly fried and with a crimson sauce that is very likely what you'd find in the Fountain of Youth. It's all garlic and peppers and bright orange heaven that makes for a heady, flavorful, nicely textured dish.
Another mild but flavorful dish is the Sizzling Chicken with Black Bean Sauce. I pretty much love anything that brings in black beans, but now I know that black beans can be raised to higher culinary standards. This black-bean sauce creates its own wonderful category of flavor, somewhere between vinegar tang and some Asian brown sauces, and pulls together a hot plate of chicken breast, peppers and onion beautifully. This dish got raves around the table. The Chicken Blossoms - chicken with water chestnuts, peanuts and peppers in a Kung Pao sauce - also scored well in a crowd of spice-lovers and the spice-shy.
Next time, I'm going to try and not order the same things and perhaps branch out to the Tea-Smoked Duck, which others have recommended, and the dish called Ants Crawling on Trees (mung bean noodles with ground pork and spices), if only for the great name. With such a varied menu (with lots of fish dishes), I suggest taking the trip to Taste with a group of friends and having a family-style meal, where everyone orders something different and the dishes circulate.
I'll also save more room for one of the many specialty beers on the menu that have been selected to complement the dishes on the menu. Several Belgian and German beers on the menu have made my short list, and a dinnertime sampling of Innis & Gunn Original, a Scottish oak-aged beer, is a new favorite. This smooth, mildly sweet beer (just a whisper of clove and vanilla) is a tonic to a spice-bombed mouth.
Beyond all these notes, I have a better endorsement for Clinton's Taste of China: On a recent visit, a patron at a nearby table remarked to her server that her Chinese exchange student, who'd eaten at Taste recently, said she preferred the food at Taste to what she'd normally encounter back home.
One more draw? The lo mein is outstanding.
233 East Main St., Clinton
Taste of China website
Cuisine: Szechuan/Chengdu cuisine
Atmosphere: Tasteful sit-down dining room
Prices: Entrées range from $13 to $26
Service: Cordial, knowledgeable, and usually quick; on busy nights, service can be spotty. Feel free to ask your server about any dish or for recommendations.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 12:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: All major