Chinese-language pop songs—and the elaborately melodramatic music videos that accompany them on the the TV screens of so many Chinatown restaurants these days—have become a staple of my eating life, a heartwarming gustatory soundtrack of sorts.
Emei is housed in an attractive rectangular space on the 900 block of Arch Street. It’s an open-plan room with handsome blue carpet below echoed by a blue-light glow shining up above, a Ferrari-red wall in the back, and framed artwork that’s simultaneously familiar and interesting enough to warrant a second or third look. And then, of course, there are the televisions and music videos, all saturated colors and longing looks and emotive enough music and staging that comprehension of their language is generally unnecessary to appreciate them.
As for the food coming out of this kitchen, it’s staking its claim on an interesting middle ground: Not quite as challenging or rewarding as the Szechuan served up in Old City’s stellar Han Dynasty, but more interesting (and rewarding) than so many of the more Americanized shops that have hung their hats on the success or failure of their General Tso’s chicken and moo shu pork.
Emei, as expected, is at its best when it lets its Szechuan flag fly and doesn’t hold back on the fireworks that make this kind of food so special. Boiled dumplings with hot oil arrived looking every bit as fierce and fiery as they turned out to be. But more than the gossamer dumpling skin or the slightly underseasoned filling was the real highlight of the dish: The oil itself, piled high with chili flakes and unexpectedly lined with a sense of sweetness, which made its tongue-searing heat not just bearable but pleasant.
Sliced beef and tripe proved to be one of the more interesting studies in texture I’ve experienced since the appetizer sampler at Nan Zhou Noodle House. And, in fact, it shared certain important similarities with it, not least of which was the flavor profile of the beef, whose nuttiness and paradoxical tender-toughness reminded me in many ways of the tendon on the app platter. As for the tripe, it was as clean as you’ll ever find, a subtle, delicate take on this often justifiably maligned part of the animal. Like a perfectly cooked scallop—though these ragged strips of stomach were far less attractive that any scallop ever has been—it didn’t need much help to impress; just a bit more salt and it would have been perfect.
Smoked pork with garlic shoot might be better labeled bacon and leeks. Call it what you will: This was the kind of dish that, after several rice bowl’s worth, may make you blissfully disgusted with yourself. Most people try to limit their breakfast-time intake of bacon to maybe three or four strips. Between the saltiness inherent in the meat and the sweet flavor and slippery texture of the leeks, I downed a dozen or so. I spent the rest of the day drinking copious amounts of water to no avail, and was thrilled to endure the puffy-fingered suffering. If the pork had been crispier, it really would have been a standout.
Hot and sour soup, while standard-issue in appearance, was built on a stock more concentrated, more expressive, than the typical cornmeal-gloppy ones that are the bane of home-delivery victims everywhere. But wonton soup, despite the deep poultry heft of the broth, was marred by thick-skinned and relatively flavorless wontons. Pork fried rice also fell flat, though the honey-sweet cubes of meat lent the bites they showed up in a pleasant spark of interest amid the otherwise starchy grains.
House special chow fun, slippery and appealing, were a steal at less than $10. Strips of pork and tender chicken showed real care in the kitchen, though the small, flavorless shrimp were a disappointment. Better to savor the jumbo head-on beauties with dried pepper. And while you do lose a bit of heat as a result of having to peel each one, the cumulative effect is palate-warming enough. As a bonus, the liverlike flavor of the juice in those shrimp heads proved to be a fantastic foil for the heat of the pepper. So, too, was a plate of dried, sauteed bitter melon—a simple, hearty mound that’s both satisfying and excitingly unfamiliar.
In all, Emei has a bit of work to do before it takes its place as a Chinatown anchor, but it’s on the right path. And as long as you lean toward the more authentic dishes, you’ll have a solid meal. They may not constitute your comfort-food paradigm, but, like those music videos, that doesn’t mean they won’t find a place there on their own. Familiarity, after all, is a process.
915 Arch St.
Cuisine type: Szechuan-centric Chinese.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm; Sun., noon-10pm
Price range: $1.50-$24.95.
Atmosphere: Attractive and comfortable.
Food: Generally solid, and even better with the more authentic dishes. Spicier ones tend to be the standouts.
Service: Friendly, but there are some language barriers.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014