I love the aroma of Texas barbecue; it puts a smile on my face. I just never expected it in a Chinese restaurant. Village Kitchen (4720 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.), though, is a different kind of Chinese restaurant, and its secret recipe for smoked beef is a different kind of Chinese dish.
Village Kitchen's food is from Hunan Province in South Central China, an early adopter of our friend, the chili pepper. English author Fuschia Dunop recounts an old Chinese joke: "Sichuanese are not afraid of chili heat; no degree of hotness will afright the people of Guizhou, but those Hunanese are afraid of food that isn't hot." In addition to pure, dry heat, Hunan cuisine is also characterized by seasonality, fresh vegetables and greater use of vinegar, as well as smoked and cured products.
And so the earthy smoked meat in that first dish was juxtaposed with the brightness of sliced leeks and a spicy punctuation of chilis. Instead of the limp, lifeless vegetables of American-Chinese restaurants, these were fresh and vibrant both to look at and taste. It was a fascinating dish built of familiar ingredients put together in new and unexpected ways.
Then there was the mashed eggplant and green chili pepper with Century eggs (preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls). The dish arrived in a mortar and pestle the waiter used to mash the contents tableside. Again, the familiar elements were combined in a novel way. This time it was the soft comfort of baba ghanoush combined with the chilis (Anaheims?), deep earthiness of the Century egg and funk of fermented black beans.
Another highlight was the chef's braised pork; a traditional Hunanese dish of pork belly braised in Shaoxing wine and water with sweet spices and chilis. Traditionally called "Mao's braised pork" (Mao Zedong was born in Hunan), Village Kitchen's version adds fresh green beans. One odd sounding class of dishes on the menu was the "Spicy Boils from Pozi Street" (the location of a Fire God Temple and a great street food scene in Hunan's capital, Changsha). Our choice of three of 10 ingredients—pig ears, smoked tofu and cabbage—was "boiled" together before, apparently, a quick stir-fry in a spicy and savory sauce.
But the highlight of many Village Kitchen dishes is the vegetables. Dong'an chicken is stewed in a mild broth with hints of vinegar and ginger. But I found myself running my chopsticks through the dish looking for the fresh bamboo shoots instead of the chicken. Then there was the incredibly simple dish of veggie-fried noodles. The noodles are great but it was those fresh vegetables, each treated with respect, which elevated the whole. The mung bean sprouts—cooked, but with a crisp texture—were the undisputed star of the dish.
Village Kitchen's food isn't high-end creative. In fact, some of the non-Hunan dishes aren't great. But when they stay close to home they are amazing. It is that smoky, Texas barbecue aroma. It is heat with a disturbing half-life. It is farmer's market-fresh veggies. It is Hunan. It is exotic. And it is welcome to San Diego.