Chicken with explosive chili pepper.
Tan tan noodles.
Being a food obsessive, I carry a long list in my phone called “places to check out” that I am constantly chipping away at, and always adding to (it’s dangerous, that list). ~Z & Y RESTAURANT~ has been on the list for a while (too long!), and a recent endorsement from a fellow spice-lovin’ chef buddy lit a fire under my ass to get over there (so to speak). Now, I have been on the Spices! and Spices II train for a while, going there frequently to get my fire-breathing fix—but after my meal this week at Z & Y, there’s a new dragon in my life.
First off, how great to find such a gem in Chinatown (and I get a kick out of the fact it’s just across the street from ABC Restaurant Cafe). This is no hole in the wall: owner Michelle Zhang, who took over a couple years ago (she moved to San Francisco six years ago from Shanghai) has created a nicely decorated room, with lanterns overhead, screens in the back, comfortable seating, and good lighting. Her husband, chef-owner Li Jun Han, is from Beijing, and has cooked for Chinese presidents and the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. (Yeah, I’d say he’s a good husband to have.) And she’s delightful—so friendly and welcoming. You’re in good hands here.
Now, since they’re in Chinatown, you’ll see a bunch of the Chinese-American standards on the menu (sweet and sour pork, five kung pao dishes, etc.), but that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because you like it hot, baby. Damned hot! (Hot tub! Gonna get ya hot! Gonna make ya sweat! Hey!)
You might as well start strong out of the gates and order the Couple’s Delight ($7.50), a staggeringly delicious cold dish of oh-so-thinly sliced tendon, shank, and tripe, draped with the numbing Szechuan pepper and chili oil, plus the crunch of peanut and bean sprouts. Have you ever experienced Szechuan pepper? It’s one of my favorite sensations, like a citrusy defibrillation for your tongue, and then it sneaks up as a tingle on your lips. Do not let the parts in this dish freak you out—it was so good I ate it for breakfast the next day, no joke. And everything in the dish is so expertly sliced—almost paper thin, if meat could be paper.
The next cold appetizer to rock your socks is the Szechuan-style chicken ($7.95), such meaty and flavorful pieces in a sweeter and spicy sauce (with some sesame) that totally hypnotized me into eating more. And more. And more. The dark meat is hacked into little pieces on the bone, so you gotta get all Chinese and suck those bones, baby. And the thinly sliced cucumber is an excellent in-between-bites refresher.
Is your mouth burning yet? Oh yes it is. Don’t cry, you’ll be fine. Personally, I try not to kill the heat with water—it only makes it worse (although the staff here cruise the room frequently with a water pitcher). Just have a couple bites of white rice and ride the heat, honey. Breathe. Take another bite. It’s okay that your face is on fire, really.
A trademark dish is the chicken with explosive chili pepper ($10.95). It’s a ridiculous presentation: a huge round plate of dried peppers arrives at the table like a fiery garden, hiding tender and juicy pieces of lightly fried boneless chicken within. The savory meat isn’t too spicy—wait a second, oh, yeah, there it is. And if you’re hardcore, you can always munch one of the peppers for a little extra oomph. Oh, and if you’re a bone sucker, order the dish with meat on the bone instead. Wings, baby!
The spicy fish with flaming chili oil ($18), the most expensive thing we ordered (the chef uses filet of sole), wasn’t actually a standout for us. But here’s what was downright sexy: the silky tofu with house spicy sauce ($5.95). It was like flan, custardy and lightly sweet, with fried soybeans, sesame, and the tiniest brunoise of Chinese black pickle. The kitchen dials back the heat in this dish’s sauce so it doesn’t overwhelm the tofu—it’s layered, and almost delicate. (I loved this dish cold the next day.)
Do you dig noodles? Who doesn’t, right? The tan tan noodles ($6.95) were best in class, thick and springy in a spicy sesame sauce of ground pork and peanuts, topped with pea sprouts. It was like a Szechuan Bolognese sauce, decadently coating each noodle. Slurp.
Since you have to get some vegetables in the mix, we were lucky that mustard greens were in season, expertly cooked to just the right crispness, with a healthy showing of garlic. There are other vegetable dishes on the menu, but I have learned to ask what’s market fresh.
There are so many dishes I want to try on this menu that I’m already plotting my return for cumin lamb, and scallion pancake, and a clay pot dish, and and and… Fortunately Z & Y is open daily for lunch and dinner, so it shouldn’t be too hard for me to keep making my way through the menu. This place is a total score—and they even style you with two hours of free parking at the Portsmouth Square Garage if you spend $30. Sweet! And spicy. Very, very spicy.