“I like this place,” a Chinese friend said, “because the food is good, and it’s relatively cheap.”
She was speaking of Willow Street 样柳巷,· a Chinese restaurant not far from downtown’s Injoy shopping mall and the BRT station that serves it. She had taken me out to belatedly celebrate my birthday once I had returned to from USA. Since she knew I was genuinely curious about trying new foods, she also chose Willow Street because the it serves food local to southern Jiangsu province. As a result, the dishes turned out to be not that spicy. Also, if an expat wants to eat here, they should either be able to read Chinese or take a Chinese friend with them. The menu is all text and no pictures.
One dish, my friend said, was native to Changzhou. This consisted of thin strips of tofu in a slightly thick clear broth. Bread-like dumplings filled the soup out, but a lot of the contrasting flavor came from strips of congealed duck blood. As I have also liked to point out, blood in Chinese cuisine often has the consistency of tofu, but with a stronger flavor. Duck blood tends to be strongest, most metallic tasting of all of them. However, it was not over powering in this soup. As I said, it provided contrast. That said, for a tofu soup, it certainly makes it not very vegetarian friendly.
“I don’t know how to translate this other than chicken on a pole,” my friend said.
And when it was served, it was exactly that. Chicken on a stainless steel pole. Perhaps the oddest thing about this was how it was served. Once cooked, the wait staff brought it to our table to look at. I wondered how we were supposed to eat it, because it was literally a small chicken — with head and neck intact — impaled on metal pole. A bowel of smoking dried ice in water was there purely for dramatic effect. Before I asked how we were supposed to eat it, it was taken away and the chicken was chopped up. The head and neck were absent once this was actually served. Despite how weird it looked, the chicken itself was well cooked, juicy, and quite delicious. I reminded me of roast or rotisserie chicken I have eaten in back in America.
We were also served a pork dish. It seemed rather simple. The exterior was slightly charred for a crispy texture, and the meat itself reminded me a little of pork belly. Stripes of meat and fat came with each thick slice. However, it lacked the saltiness that sometimes come with pork belly. So, that made me think it just looked like that cut without it actually being this. The coolest thing, however, was the presentation here. The meat sizzled on a tin foil cooking surface. The flame itself, however, was inside of white stone container with black Chinese calligraphy.
Two of the other dishes consisted of a very simply pumpkin dish. Sometimes, pumpkin is a lot like sweet potato. You don’t have to do much to it make it yummy. It’s just delicious in its most simple form.
The other dish used cassava, which is interesting since that is a plant that grows more in tropical and sub-tropical climates. The last I had ever heard of cassava used as food was when I lived in Bermuda a very long time ago. At Willow Street, cassava flour had been used to make gelatinous cubes that had been served with ground pork. Actually, this reminded me a lot of mapo doufu — just substitute cassava cubes for tofu.
On the whole, Willow street struck me as a very good Chinese restaurant where good flavor and taste didn’t come with a high price tag. It was a great place to spend some time with a dear Chinese friend.