Lucky Strike – Portland, OR
3862 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, OR 97214
I’ve always been more than a bit suspicious of Chinese restaurants whose appearance doesn’t scream “Chinese,” – meaning the divey dumpling joint with specials written on the walls only in Chinese characters or the slightly-tacky upscale Cantonese seafood palace/aquarium – as if compromise in decor suggests similar in the kitchen. Lucky Strike is a Sichuan restaurant with an unfortunate name and a decor which screams “Portland” despite the Chinese theme. Portland oozes hip from seemingly every pore, and no number of dragons is sufficient as camoflage. Countering my normal skepticism were a number of strong reports of real Sichuan food.
Balance is certainly one of the hallmarks of great food no matter what price point or region. Cantonese food seems to balance the sublest flavors like a game of Jenga in a windstorm – the smallest wrong move and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Sichuan food balances flavor Jenga blocks the size of entire buildings, with flavors almost bigger in scale than appropriate for humans. It’s no wonder that some Sichuanese (apocryphally?) wonder why all other cuisines taste so bland. Two of the key flavors are ma, usually translated as “numbing” but to me has a strong hint of “tingling” as well, and la or spicy/hot. The former comes from huajiao or Sichuan peppercorn (among a whole list of names).
The cold sesame noodles, apparently one of the killer-app dishes during the dawn of regional Chinese cooking on this continent almost 50 years ago, exhibited a very satisfying chew (our server thought the noodles were imported from Sichuan province but they could have been mistaken for housemade) and only slightly-awkwardly balanced sesame, sugar and raw garlic.
The yushiang (“fish-fragrant”) eggplant was even more successful, with a very attractive palate of colors that tasted as good as it looked. The sauce nicely tied together all the components and the overall effect was less oily than usual. To me, the most successful dish of the night.
My absolutely favorite Sichuan dish is lazi ji, which amounts to a mountain of chili peppers stir-fried with bits of fried chicken (preferably bone-in) at a volume ratio of 4 or 5 to 1. Part of the fun is in sifting through the peppers to look for the last remaining bits of chicken. It’s never as spicy as it looks like it should be but an ideal version balances ma with la with sugar and soy sauce that the chicken has been marinated with. The flavor of the stir-fried chilies is, incongruously, a fairly subtle one and it’s easy to be lost in the cross fire of these other flavor heavyweights. Unfortunately in this case, the ma takes precedent over all else, and the desired delicate balance goes up in a puff of wok smoke. It’s still a tasty dish but somehow is less than the sum of its parts.
Another classic dish is shui-ju, literally “water-cooked” which is some person’s idea of humor. The first shui-ju beef that I ever had glowed such a bright red color that I was pushed back by the radiation pressure. It was incredible, eye-opening and practically inedible for its spiciness. The chef was famous for being one of the best Sichuan chefs in Beijing before moving to LA and opening a sliver of a restaurant in Monterey Park. I still remember the taste, though, perhaps seared permanently into my memory by the massive capsaicin rush that was right on its heels. The shui-ju fish at Lucky Strike again played all the correct notes but without the requisite finesse to make great music, and thus came across as an admirable and legitimate attempt that fell short of very good.
Doing Sichuan food well seems very difficult. The flavors are so strong that a small shift away from perfect can overwhelm the palate. If I lived in Portland, I imagine I would be a regular customer at Lucky Strike due to my love of the cuisine and the fact that they try sincerely to do it right. The fact that they more often than not fall short of excellence probably says more about how difficult it is to do properly than the effort in the kitchen – if it were easy, there wouldn’t be people chasing the elusive but apparently transcendent cuisine of Peter Chang all over southeastern United States.