Metro Cafe: Sichuan in Sunset Park (Hold the Pork)
When I have a cold—as has been the case for the past two weeks (!)—I crave two things: sleep and Sichuan food. Forget Benadryl: the cuisine's one-two punch of tingly Sichuan peppercorns and fiery-hot chiles always seems to drain my sinuses and clear my head.
So on Sunday, I headed deep into Brooklyn to one of my favorite neighborhoods here: Sunset Park, where the spoken English is scarce and the heady scents of Latin and Asian cooking fill the air. One source of those good smells is Metro Cafe.
I have one word of advice about eating Sichuan food: never, ever skip the "Cold Appetizers" section, no matter what the weather is outside. There are usually quite a few gems to be found there, a theory that holds true at Metro Cafe. One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the Dry Bean Curd Noodle with Special Sauce ($6.95, pictured at top), a tangle of chewy shredded tofu strands (the "noodles") whose rough, patterned texture really enabled them to grab onto their spicy soy, sesame and ginger dressing.
To complement this cool dish, I ordered a soup rarely seen on Chinese menus in New York: Parsley with Tomato and Egg Drop Soup ($6.95). This arrived at the table in a huge, steaming bowl large enough to split between myself and the five friends who joined me. A thick, almost syrupy vegetable broth was filled with soft folds of cooked egg and a smattering of fresh tomato chunks, then topped with chopped fresh cilantro (the "parsley," I suppose) and bits of green onion. A supremely comforting dish.
If you like hash browns, you'll love Shredded Potato with Hot Pepper ($8.95), which is similar in flavor if not in texture: the long, thin strands of potatoes are more poached in oil than browned in it, and retain a soft texture and mild flavor that's nicely complemented by strands of spicy green chilies.
Tofu is all over the menu at Metro Cafe, but order carefully—many of those dishes, like the famous mapo tofu, feature pork just as prominently as the bean curd. For a meatless main dish, we tried the Braised Tofu with Brown Sauce ($8.95): silky soft, lightly fried squares of tofu draped in a deeply savory soy-based sauce and strewn with red and green bell peppers and scallions. The dish was flavorful and enjoyable, but not particularly memorable.
That description could be applied to this meal on the whole. While all the dishes were tasty, they lacked the wonderful interplay of tingly Sichuan peppercorns and spicy-hot peppers. Other parts of the menu featured this combination prominently: tables around us dug into signature Sichuan dishes—the aforementioned mapo tofu, hot pot, and cumin lamb—whose aroma was unmistakable. The vegetable dishes at Metro Cafe function more as a neutral counterpoint to these classics, for they lacked the kick I seek out from this cuisine. A satisfying meal for vegetarians, if not an especially memorable one.