Grand Sichuan (Upper West Side)
307 Amsterdam Ave (b/n 74th and 75th Streets; map); 212-580-0277
Service: No nonsense, efficient, brusque
Setting: Relatively fancy for inexpensive Chinese. Clean, comfortable.
Must-Haves: Braised Beef with Chili Sauce, Scallion Pancakes, ChongQing Spicy Chicken, Beef Chow Fun
Cost: Appetizers $4.25 and up, Entrees $8.95 and up
When I first moved to the Upper West Side in the 1970's, the neighborhood Chinese restaurants were everywhere. Chuan Hong, on 105th and Broadway, was my favorite when I lived on 105th and West End. Then there was Chun Cha Fu, which is where Carmine's is now. And there was the Upper West Side branch of Hunan Balcony. These Chinese restaurants offered great value to those of us who didn't have much money. I don't even know how good they were, given our changing standards, but I do know I loved having them around.
Then in the eighties, one by one they started disappearing, having fallen victim to commercial rent hikes. By the nineties they had all but disappeared. Yes, Hunan Balcony is still there, as are Empire Szechuan and a few of the odd-couple Chinese-Cuban affairs, but nobody would call any of these anything but serviceable and workman-like, with their old-school Chinese-American menus of egg foo yung and pork fried rice, or two-for-one sushi deals.
And let's not forget the Ollie's mini-chain. One by one they conquered Broadway from 116th Street to 68th Street. Ollie's was and is maddeningly frustrating to eat at. Sometimes the barbecue Chinese meats are really good, and other times they're practically inedible. Ditto for the noodle soups and the stir-fry dishes. There's Shun Lee West near Lincoln Center, and their food can be really good, but it's expensive and formal, rather than a neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
In recent years I have seen really good Chinese food come to every other neighborhood in Manhattan except the Upper West Side. Many of these restaurants stem from a single source: the Grand Sichuan International (GSI) mini-chain. Chelsea, the East Village, the West Village, 56th and Second; there are a half dozen locations throughout the city. Though I am generally anti-chain, the different GSI storefronts were pretty consistent, although the menus and even preparations of particular dishes could vary from location to location.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I saw that GSI was opening a branch in the old shark bar location at 75th and Amsterdam. This location has a smaller menu, but given its location, it's still pretty adventurous while keeping in mind the fairly conservative tastes of the Upper West Side when it comes to Chinese food. It breaks down to an even mix of authentic Sichuan classics and old-school Chinese American fare.
It's become my go-to spot for ordering take out for the last several months. To really put it through its paces, I enlisted the help of Kenji (who veers towards the fiery Sichuan side of the menu) and ordered a dozen or so dishes. Here are a few of our favorites.
Boneless Whole Fried Fish with Pine Nuts ($14.95) is an expertly cooked catfish dusted in a crisp coating and served with a brown gravy. Often these whole fried fish dishes are more about appearance than flavor, with overcooked or bland meat, but not the case here. It's got a fine, crunchy exterior covering tender fish, and a sweet and savory gravy.
Smoked Tea Duck w. Bone ($16.95) combines crackly thin, greaseless skin over supremely tender meat with the light aroma of smoldering tea. It's very much like the Chinese barbecue you see hanging from the windows by our new office: smokey, meaty, crispy.
The Scallion Pancakes ($4.25) here are more green than brown, crispy, flaky, and not gummy at all; they're like a pancake should be. They have a relatively light, well-balanced scallion flavor and a multi-layered texture with just the right amount of chew. Also great is the Chinese Chives and Eggs: like a Chinese matzo brei with chives replacing the matzoh.
I love the Dry Sauteed String Beans with Minced Pork ($9.95). The deep-fried then stir-fried beans are charred and al dente, and the minced pork is, well, extremely porky.
For seafood, I like to take out the Shrimp with Sichuan Sauce ($13.95): it's not particularly spicy, but the shrimp are a dark burnished brown and wonderfully crunchy. It comes with steamed broccoli.
The House Spicy Beef Noodle Soup ($6.75) has a broth that's hot and tasty with a good amount of chili heat, and the bok choy is fresh and crisp. The only complaint would be the noodles, which are a little soft and waterlogged (a common problem with their noodle dishes). Still, a great, filling, all-in-one meal at a reasonable price.
Ox Tongue, Tripe w. Hot & Pepper Sauce ($6.95) is one of my favorite Sichuan appetizers, and done quite well here, with a good amount of citrusy Sichuan pepper and chili oil. The cold tripe takes on a crisp, slightly chewy texture with plenty of nooks and crannies in which the dressing hangs out.
With the ChongQing Spicy Chicken ($11.95) we finally start to see some serious heat with a couple different types of dried and fresh chilis. It could use more Sichuan pepper, but the chicken is crisp, moist, well seasoned, and plenty hot.
If you haven't figured it out by now, Mapo Tofu ($8.95) is my death-row dish. I love it, particularly the hardcore traditional Sichuan variety, which comes hidden under a crimson slick of fiery chili oil with a cloud of toasted Sichuan peppercorns floating on top. Grand Sichuan's is good, but eases up on the heat and oil, instead choosing to employ a cornstarch-thickened thick red sauce. The flavor is fine, but the heat and chili oil could be increased.
On the other hand, the Braised Beef Filets w. Chili Sauce ($10.95) has everything the Mapo Tofu should: plenty of chili oil and Sichuan pepper. The beef itself has a nice, slippery, slick, tender texture, nicely contrasted with the still-crisp braised cabbage hiding underneath.
It's not Sichuan, but Dry-style Beef Chow Fun ($6.95) is my kid sister's favorite dish, and I must have had it at at least a few dozen restaurants around the world. Grand Sichuan's ain't the best (head to East Ocean City in Boston's Chinatown for that), but it's certainly up there with fresh tasting steamed rice noodles, tender beef, not too much sauce, and plenty of smoky wok hei. These guys know how to handle a wok.