Back during the first week of December, I noticed that a place named Village Kitchen had just opened. At first indication, it seemed like a Hunan restaurant. I was interested. I was even more interested when one of my readers "SZ" sent me an email with a photo......of that classic Hunan dish; Fish Head. I sent the photo to a friend of mine and suddenly her dad insisted on going...and last I heard he's visited 6 times since!
I knew after looking at the menu on my first visit; with my coworkers Lily and YZ (YZ has been back with her friends since), that this wasn't typical "San Diego" (where everyone makes the same thing) type dishes, there had to be a story behind this. After visits with Calvin and one (overdue) blow out meal with my good friends, I'd gotten a bit of the background. The young man who owns and runs Village Kitchen has an interesting genealogy; his father owns Dong Ting Chun the Hunan restaurant located in Focus Plaza, in San Gabriel. In fact, if you look at photos on that "four lettered site", you'll find many of the same dishes served here. His background is also interesting; perhaps I'll tell it one day. But let's just say he is highly educated here in the US and I'm guessing he'd rather do this than have a career in science.
One other thing that makes this place interesting; especially for cuisines of the type....the don't use any MSG!
The interior is clean and bright. Don't let the empty tables fool you. The place always fills up soon after opening. Almost all the customers are Chinese.
Some interesting things; if you want water here, you grab a plastic cup and get it from the self serve containers at either the front or the rear of the dining room. Tea is $5; but it is pretty good quality.
Not much more left but the food, right? So here we go.....
My favorite dish....and there's never leftovers for this one is the Eggplant and Green Chili with Preserved Egg ($10.75).
The dish is served up in a mortar; the chilies are mild green chilies and the eggplant seems to have been flame roasted and is both smokey and creamy. Love the flavor of the "pidan" (Century Egg - 皮蛋), the sulfuric finish is still there but tempered. The sauce has two of my favorite flavor components, fermented bean curd and fermented black bean. It's a unique dish and doesn't seem Hunan at all, regardless, it is very delici-yoso.....
I also enjoyed the Stinky Tofu Stew ($11.75).
So did Lily, YZ, and Calvin. It had a nice sour flavor, wasn't too spicy, the earthy, smelly tofu flavor was balanced out by other flavors in the dish. The tofu soaked up all the nice broth which completed the slightly "ripe" flavor of the tofu. The second time I had the dish (photo on right), it was even better, the flavor of cumin coming through. Of course, the Missus believes that if I can eat the ChouDofu, it isn't any good (remember Hangzhou?) Tasting the leftovers; She did say that the second one was better than the first, but this just wasn't spicy enough.
After trying many of the dishes here, I can vouch that this ain't Hunan Chilli King, but the next two dishes are decently spicy.
The Grilled Octopus ($13.75), which has been sliced rather thinly, and is served on a heated chafing dish is the most spicy dish I've had here.
The texture of the octopus was pleasantly chewy and nicely prepared. The portion size was quite large. A very nice dish.
The pickled/sour flavors of the Specialty Fish Fillet ($13.75) heightened the chili flavors in this dish.
The "soup" is full of preserved mustard greens, which actually makes it better than the fish; while not muddy in flavor, it was a bit too mushy for my liking. Still, I'd have this again.
The Hunan Style Lotus Roots ($8.75) was nice and crunchy.
Nicely flavored, but not quite as spicy as I like it, nor could I make out a slight vinegar flavor, which the versions I enjoy the most have. It actually tasted better the next day.
The classic Three Steamed Meats ("Country Smoked Meat Medley - $13.75) was a mixed bag.
The La Rou - smoked pork was fine, better than most, but still nowhere near the versions we enjoy the most. The smoked fish was really bony as was the duck....the smoked flavor was quite good for those though and the Missus, who loves gnawing on things actually enjoyed it.
The Steamed Fish Head with Red Chilies ($17.75) had some delicious components.
The bean curd did well with the chilies, as did the yam noodles. In one aspect, this really reminded me of Hunan dishes I've had...the salt level teetered on the edge of being too salty, but was just enough.... The fish was nice and tender, but a bit too muddy for my taste.
I strangely ordered some Liang Cai; a cold dish on one of my visits; Pig Ear.
The pig ears were sliced nicely and were quite crunchy. Decent flavor; perhaps in need of a bit of black vinegar and a bit of chili oil.
The case of the Salted Long Beans with Smoked Pork ($12.75) is an interesting one.
YZ told me I had to try this after ordering it during a meal with her friends. I thought it was ok; no one at the table enjoyed it, so I took most of it home. The Missus enjoyed this. Salted, preserved long beans is one of Her Father's favorite items. Being from Hunan, the Missus had eaten this when visiting Her Grandmother who, I was told, made a fantastic version of this dish. Of course, this was nowhere as good, but for the Missus, it was a moment of nostalgia.
One of the most interesting items on the menu is called Rock n' Roll Pig Feet ($12.75). I gave the Missus a copy of the menu and asked what the translation of the Chinese name of this dish was......and was told it is a literal direct translation. So, here we have Rock n' Roll Pig Feet. When arriving at the table, the pot (covered of course) is shaken vigorously......rock n' roll!
This was fairly aromatic and the flavor was decent if on the mild side and I think it could have braised a bit longer making it more gelatinous. Not quite "I Love Rock and Roll", but I'm game to giving this another try.
I actually enjoyed the Baby Taro and Baby Turnip Stew ($9.75).
The broth was nice and rich and the flavoring quite good.
The Hunan Classic, Dong-An Chicken ($15.75) just barely missed the mark.
The chicken flavor was excellent; I was told it was very good quality chicken, never frozen. The versions I've tasted have had a bit more of a complex flavor; vinegar, more ginger, a tad more sesame oil. While traditionally not a very spicy dish, I think this could have benefited by maybe one more chili?
Lastly, the one dish that really could have been a winner; the Zi Ran Yang Rou - Cumin Lamb ($14.75).
In terms of the quality of the lamb, to the amount of cilantro (maybe a bit too much), and how the lamb was stir fried, this was spot on. The one big missing thing? There was no cumin flavor here...plus, I like mine with a bit of garlic. I guess I'll need to keep making it at home.
Overall, I'm quite excited about the arrival of Village Kitchen in San Diego. The food is different, interesting, and I'd like to try more. It might even get the Missus out eating Chinese regional cuisine in our fair city again. I'm looking forward to returning and trying even more dishes. The service is decent, they do get a bit confused at times....the business is new, so of course there are little bumps in the road. But you sure won't get "Spicy City service" here. Even though it doesn't quite line up with my favorite Hunan places in the SGV, I urge you to check Village Kitchen out and come to your own opinion.
4720 Clairemont Mesa Blvd
San Diego, CA 92117