Similar to how food in the South has a different character from the food that comes out of New England or the Pacific Northwest, Chinese cuisine has so much more diversity to offer than is normally seen in the Americanized Chinese takeout joint slinging endless containers of General Tso's chicken and lo mein. In Rochester there are few options that diverge from that heavily fried and sweetened fare, and that has been a source of disappointment for me. About a month ago, one of my barista friends told me about a place he had recently visited called Tsingtao House, which is bucking the trend in a serious way.
Tsingtao is tucked away on the side of a building that looks more like a convenience store to the passing traffic on West Henrietta Road. With large red lettering spelling out "TSINGTAO" on the side of the building, there is no other signage indicating that it is a restaurant. Additional confusion comes from the fact that Tsingtao shares a name with one of the more recognizable Chinese beer companies. With all that being said, I feel quite comfortable describing this as a "hidden gem."
The menu at Tsingtao House is solidly based in the Sichuan (or Szechuan or Szechwan depending on your spelling preferences) style of cuisine which is most widely noted for a taste sensation described as má là. This combination of spicy peppers and a mouth tingling effect from Sichuan peppercorns is relatively unique to this style of cooking and one that I quite enjoy.
A trio of dishes that I sampled exemplified this flavor profile, and each was unique. The most approachable of the three was the simply named spicy chicken ($14) which is an amped up version of popcorn chicken. This version involves dry fried chicken chunks coated with a dynamic group of seasonings that include fresh and dried peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, salt, garlic, ginger, and soy. Each bite brought a touch of má là and an addictive salty, savory crunch.
The intense red chili sauce in the mapo tofu ($9) looks intimidating, but has milder spice than you would expect based on the appearance. The lightly thickened sauce features the citrusy brightness of the Sichuan peppercorns balancing the chili base. This is a dish where the heat catches up with you instead of kicking you in the face.
My favorite of the three dishes was the sliced ox tongue and maw ($9). It brought the most heat, and was served cold, which was a fascinating contrast. The thin slices of tongue and lightly funky tripe are coated in a sauce and paste that not only pops with má là but also uses black vinegar and chili oil leading to an explosive combination. This dish is best eaten with a bit of rice to spread the flavors out, but if you love offal cuts this is definitely the dish for you. You can also find kidney, hearts, and chicken feet on the menu if you wish to continue down the offal path.
Don't be scared away from visiting Tsingtao if you don't like some heat; there are plenty of dishes that edge away from the wild and more toward the mild. A pile of snow peas served with slices of cured pork was a respite from the heat of my dishes and still brought plenty of savory flavor. The sauce was thin, packed with garlic, and was consistently meaty despite a relatively small amount of pork. And a soup with wide flour noodles and pieces of lamb ($8) was simple yet satisfying.
The cumin lamb ($18) and double cooked pork ($14) were two meat dishes that hit opposite sides of the seasoning spectrum. The lamb pieces were solidly coated with lightly crushed cumin seeds and a base of the dried peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. This dish did have a touch of heat, but wasn't over-powering. The texture contrasts — popping pieces of cumin seed and the occasional crispy edges from wok searing on the extra tender lamb — were my favorite part of the dish. The double cooked pork dish was a mountain of sliced pork belly braised and then stir fried in a light black bean sauce. This was the most lightly seasoned of the main courses and a nice option to pass around as an accent.
And there is a selection of steamed and fried dumplings to choose from along with buns that are denser than the normal steamed versions. The dumplings were exquisitely juicy and the meat fillings for the buns were balanced with cilantro and bright spices. I'm going to make it a point to try all of the versions on the menu during my future visits.
Tsingtao House doesn't try to cater to the tastes of well-known Americanized Chinese dishes, and it shines because of that. Based on observations from a few visits, this has already become a go-to spot for the college-aged Chinese crowd, and it should be one for anyone who loves Asian food.
You can read more from Chris Lindstrom or listen to his podcast on his food blog, Foodabouttown.com. Share any dining tips with him on Twitter and Instagram @stromie.