I have a case of the sniffles. So does everybody else at the table. But it's not a case of the cold---it's a case of the hot. We're eating the spicy shrimp at JiXiang Chinese Restaurant. Given the option, we asked for intensely, extremely, face-meltingly hot. We wanted to see the air above it shake in terror as heat rose above it, like asphalt in August. We got it. Well, our faces haven't melted. But it's hot.
The restaurant is simple and bright, physically unchanged from the days of China Classic, which once occupied the Quinpool Road space. The menu---which still has the old restaurant name emblazoned on the cover---is a sprawling list of Szechuan flavours, from aromatic stews to hot and numbing stirfries where peppercorns and chilis are used with abandon.
We order golden dumplings ($6.95) as a starter while we mull over our options, minds changing with every tempting description. After a few more patient minutes, our kind server returns---we get the heat-free Jing Jiang shredded pork ($12.95), moderately spicy YuXiang eggplant ($9.95) and fiery spicy shrimps ($11.95) with a medium steamed rice ($3.95).
She returns shortly with plates and cutlery, adding chopsticks at our request and bringing the dumplings moments later. They are plump and juicy, edges dotted with tiny golden blisters. The filling is a savoury combination of ground pork, squash and mushroom, with pops of crisp green onion.
The pork is the first main delivered. It smells wonderful and the Beijing sauce has a tanginess that, when breathing in, instantly calls back the delightfully astringent whiff you get after pouring vinegar into a hot pan---a sensation I take an admittedly odd pleasure in when I cook at home.
A pile of wispy, silky pancakes are the vehicle for the pork. We also tuck shredded green onion into the wraps, the finger food bringing a simple whimsy to our meal and really bringing home the communal joy of family-style dining that is so tied to Asian food.
The rest of the dishes soon arrive. The portions are generous; there are four of us and easily enough food for six. The eggplant is perfectly cooked---firm, but creamy---sitting in a tasty puddle of YuXiang sauce. There is just a hum of heat, which is wonderful with the nicely balanced garlicky sweetness of the sauce.
The spicy shrimp is the red, orange and yellow fire in what has been a rainbow of varying heat. From the first bite my lips tingle. By the last bite I have a sheen of sweat forming under my eyes and my nose is almost constantly adrip. Szechuan chilis are plentiful, as are red and green peppers, green onion and starchy rice cakes that make a tasty bed for the big, plump shrimp.
The shrimp is flawlessly prepared, still tender with shells left on to give that extra punch of flavour. It's easy enough to discard the shells, but I like the crunch, especially with the chewy rice cakes and soft texture of the veggies. A surprising highlight in the dish was the onion, which stood out as sweet and succulent against the sear of the chilis. At least two of us make it a point to make that the last bite we take before pushing our bowls away in defeat.
Everybody has a different idea of what makes good Chinese food. This is not a restaurant with a lot of food-court favourites on the menu---there are a few standards---but it's a great menu with really varied, complex flavours and simple ingredients elevated through a deft use of spice and heat. It is definitely my idea of good Chinese food.