Sichuan Bistro, an authentic Chinese restaurant located at 7888 Mason-Montgomery Road in Mason, is much ballyhooed among us food bloggers. I'm seemingly among the last to add to its praise.
Three places come to mind when I think of authentic Chinese in Cincinnati: King Wok in Clifton; Jan's Chinese in Montgomery and now Sichuan Bistro in Mason. I've also heard good things about Uncle Yip's in Reading and Wok Inn in St. Bernard. The litmus test for authentic Chinese is simple and renowned: it's directly proportional to the ratio of Chinese patrons vs. the "Gweilos."
Sichuan Bistro can be found just past all the sea of newer shopping centers and restaurants off the Fields Ertel exit. It's well past Polo Grille, Abuelo's and just past the Tide dry cleaner, in a little strip mall right next to an intriguing-looking Korean restaurant called Sura.
We arrived in the evening and the first thing I noticed was how brightly lit the place was. Two separate dining rooms were aglow with intense florescents; upbeat, pastel oranges and yellows on the wall helped to mute the nearly institutional-like brightness. A streamer hung from the ceiling advertising Sichuan's award for being listed among the top 100 Chinese Restaurants in the United States, as chosen by Chinese Restaurant News magazine.
A waitress immediately spotted us at the door and directed us to a table. After taking our drink orders, another server arrived with two plates and...forks. The secrets out, I thought with a smirk: we're Gweilos, alright.
As anticipated after having read all the previous restaurant reviews, the ratio of Chinese to whites was about 3:1. I could tell many were regulars because the wait staff seemed to greet several by name and had their "usuals" served to them in minutes.
Two menus were placed before us: the blue "Americanized" menu of the usual suspects found at any generic faux-Chinese restaurant; and the yellow menu written in both Chinese and English containing only authentic Chinese dishes, like the Pork Maw with Garlic sauce; Beef Tendon; and Tea-smoked Duck.
We virtually dismissed the blue menu and delved straight into the authentic yellow one. There were at least a dozen items I wanted to try and about a half dozen I was legitimately intimidated by, like the Beef & Tripe Medley or the Pork Ear Strips in Chili Oil. Then I saw my all-time Chinese favorite: Mapo Tofu, a spicy, saucy concoction replete with pork and tofu goodness.
My girlfriend opted for the equally spicy Yushang Eggplant: large nuggets of fresh eggplant cooked in a wok with garlic, ginger and hot bean paste and topped with green onions. As an appetizer (listed in the menu as "snack,") we selected the Sichuan Mung Bean Noodles, jiggly, slippery, semi-transparent noodles cut roughly the same shape, length and thickness of french fries, served in a spicy chili oil-onion sauce.
The Mung Bean Noodles were tasty but their slippery texture made them somewhat hard to manage using forks. We could easily have asked for pairs of the red, plastic chopsticks, but were too busy feasting to really care. The struggle became part of the fun experience.
Later, our entrees arrived along with a bowl of white rice to share. Portion sizes were impressive; to-go boxes were a foregone conclusion. The Mapo tofu cubes were creamy and exuded the spicy pork flavor of the meat sauce they had absorbed; there was even a pleasing, subtle hint of a spice reminiscent of nutmeg rounding out the dish.
The Yushang Eggplant was equally delicious: the eggplant was a colorful shade of light purple, cooked just short of being soft, lending a meat-like texture to the vegetarian entree. The hearty sauce was boldly infused with hot bean paste and garlic.