Having said that, I was slightly underwhelmed by my first experience there – at the newish Cambridge location. The cumin lamb was wonderfully cuminy, but the odd piece here and there was chewy. Plus, there was – to my taste – a slightly too-high proportion of large chunks of green and red peppers (bell), and onion. We had a noodle dish with pork – it was terrific, but lacked the black beans the menu claimed it had. We didn’t complain because we found communication difficult. The principal language there is Chinese and we had difficulty getting our charming server to understand our order. Everybody there is very obliging and friendly, but still getting a point across is not easy.
Our third dish was the best by far, the sizzling chicken. It had no heat but was packed with deep flavor. I strongly recommend it.
The Cambridge location has dry hotpot: you choose ingredients from a case, which are weighed, then-stir fried. But, I’d just had , two days before, a superb dry hotpot in Flushing, resplendent with kidney, sausage, and lots of other this-and-that, and I wanted that memory to fade before I tried the tamer offerings (thinly sliced beef and lamb, several types of mushroom, etc.) at 5 Spice. But, I’ll get to it.
I went for the first time with a couple of kids for lunch during the Cambridge Science Fair week. I’m with you on this – nothing was terrible among the things I ordered, in particular I liked the dry fried green beans with the right salt level and little bits of pickle mixed in. But nothing got knocked out of the park, either. Can’t quite make up my mind if it’s a place I need to keep revisiting or not, though it’s nice to have that as an option in Central Square.
What did we eat there? I’m afraid I can’t remember! We ate there three times, most recently in 2016. Once it was just the two of us, and the other two times with different groups of friends. We had a lot of different dishes, and everybody liked everything. I’d like to return on our next visit, but there are so many places I’m looking forward to trying, especially since @passing_thru turned me on to Malden.
I went back to the Central Square branch with a crew of spice heads. I put these notes on my annotated Google map:
The “old time favorite” menu is fairly simple - eight sauces or bases (black bean sauce or 豆汁; broccoli or 蘭花; cashew nuts or 腰果; mixed vegetables or 雜菜; curry or 咖哩; garlic sauce or 魚香; scallion or 蔥爆; kung pao or 宮保) and four proteins (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp). They also have an extensive specialties menu which encompasses SiChuan, ShangHai, and TaiWan cooking. They are most successful with the SiChuanese dishes, delivering nuanced, layered flavor in red oil dumplings (紅油抄手 with a spicy sauce tinged with garlic blanched to perfection), dan dan noodles (擔擔麵 with a spicy, beautifully sesame-inflected sauce), dry pot (乾鍋 with layers of smoky complexity to a variety of protein options), and “boiled” (水煮 in a tongue-tingling broth of chili and SiChuan peppercorns). The dry fried green beans (乾扁四季豆) have a lovely pickle/garlic/scallion sauce. They use good cuts of meat with high quality knife work.
There are more things that I look forward to trying. And they have a hot pot (火鍋) option, where you pick out your raw ingredients from a chilled case, and they will mix a hot pot or dry pot for you. (The name of the restaurant in Chinese references the five flavors - 五味 - that are commonly blended as a single condiment and seven ingredients - 七品 - which appear to be seven hot pot soup bases.)
The disappointments come in the non-SiChuan offerings; dumplings (水餃) and pan fried pork buns (生煎包) are executed much better in other places, and lo mein (撈麵) and chow fun (河粉) are competent, but wouldn’t make you reconfigure your driving route.
Still, for the rich variety of spice head offerings, this is a legitimate addition to the plethora of SiChuan options in greater Boston.
Our experiences here have been getting better and better. Based on several meals, here are some knockouts:
The dry hotpot stuff is terrific, with real heat. We’ve had it with various meats, and with fish, and they’ve all been superb. You cannot get all the internal body parts you can get in, say, Queens, but what they do with what they have is every bit as tasty.
The sizzling dishes with rice cakes are also surprisingly good. No heat at all, but a lot of flavor. We’ve done chicken mostly, but the lamb was also very good, and – a big plus to them – with different, darker saucing (and if you don’t like darker saucing, then, sorry, you’re no saucerer).
The dry sauteed string beans with “bamboo tip” is always terrific.
The egg fried rice with invisible scallion is also terrific and also hilarious (order it and tell me if invisibility did not take on new meaning for you).
The pan fried egg with soup rivals Shangri La’s “homestyle egg drop”. It eventually falls just short to me, but there’s really no higher praise.
I haven’t had a chance to try the dry hotpot. I guess I need to.
Sizzling dishes ( 锅巴) aren’t intended to be spicy, the point is the rice which absorbs and reflects back the flavor of the sauces with the caramelization that comes from the rice getting stuck to the wok (which is what the Chinese above means). It’s often a gimmick even in Americanized Chinese restaurants, but I’ll have to add that to my list of things to try.
Egg fried rice with scallion (翡翠炒饭, literally “jade fried rice”) was striking when I saw it on the menu. As you say, the scallions aren’t “visible,” but the entire dish is an interesting shade of green. I absolutely loved it, and have never seen this before.
While I’m eager to hear your opinions of these, my (ill-informed) impression is that they’re more Taiwanese dishes than Sichuan. You’ve dissected the 5-spice menu with excellent precision above, and have pointed out that their non-Sichuan offerings are disappointing. It would be interesting to hear what you feel about these items (5&6).
As an aside, one of the reasons that my family and I admire Shangri La so much is that they uncompromisingly stick to one style of food (and offer such a damn-tasty version of it). 5-spice seems to veer ever-so-slightly in the direction of offering many things to many people.
Unfortunately, in the same way that many Indian restaurants feel compelled to offer dishes from multiple regions of India, including ones they don’t have expertise in preparing, so many Chinese restaurants feel compelled to offer giant menus so that there’s something in each diner’s comfort zone. So my regional categories are at best approximate, and for that matter, the dishes themselves aren’t always obvious as to region (except when the origin story has a specific tie to a specific place). I make these notes well aware there’s another thread active right now about self-righteous zealots like me who insist on authenticity rather than a cuisine adapting itself to its locale and tastes. That’s a bigger, uglier, more complicated discussion that I don’t want to delve into just now.
With TaiWanese cookery, well, the story gets more complicated. The island’s indigenous people probably hailed from the South Pacific, but they have been marginalized (though their cuisine is being revived on the island these days). Most of what we think of as “TaiWanese” are Han Chinese, many of whom came to the island over the centuries, most commonly from FuJian province. Upshot is that the TaiWanese dialect sounds a lot like FuJianese (though no longer identical) and the cuisines are similar. However, TaiWan was also a Japanese protectorate for 50 years, so the sushi, teppanyaki, and ramen joints on TaiWan and the Japanese elements that are on some Taiwanese restaurant menus might actually be fully authentic. And the Nationalists who evacuated in 1949 came from all over China, so there are people well trained in authentic cooking of every region.
Which in turn leads me to wonder if the 5 Spices people are actually TaiWanese, rather than SiChuanese. I’d have to chat them up to (maybe) find out, though they have never looked to be in a chatty mood when I’ve been there.
I was optimistic about eating out in Jan 2020, I guess, but somehow this never happened? But I’m trying to make use of what may be the last of my afternoon flexibility for some time (at least I sort of hope so) to make a couple stops. Moved my lunch outing up to C square to check this place out.
Armed with suggestions (see above, thanks @fooddabbler and @DrJimbob ) I ordered way too much food for one person to eat for lunch. The dry fried string beans were excellent and came out in about three minutes, hot off the grill and chock full of seared garlic. The pan fried egg with tomato soup had great broth and lots of simmered greens–though I’m not personally sold on this dish. I wish I could have tried the version from the late lamented Shangri-La before it closed. I liked it fine, but I’m not on board via this one bowl–the eggs were cooked well but I’m not sure the browned eggs give enough texture and the industrial tomatoes (to be fair, I do not expect any more in a 9$ bowl of soup) maybe lack the full flavor to make it sing. Still pretty good, though.
My favorite thing by far was the dan dan noodles, cooked perfectly and with an deep, intriguing flavor. I loved the nuance of the sichuan pepper here and the dish in general just had a great balance of texture and taste. In general this was a great lunch, and honestly I ate the leftovers for breakfast today and I’ll be doing the same tomorrow.
The dining room is somewhat cavernous and a little dank (as someone who lived in C Square in the 90’s, I tried to remember what this space was previously but cannot), but probably it’s more homey when it’s full of people like in the old times. The food is good, though, and it’s a nice place to have around.
Glad your experience here was at least decent, @passing_thru. The Shangri La version of the soup did not have tomatoes, incidentally, and I agree the supermarkety ones at 5 Spices don’t add much. I haven’t had that soup from them in a while, but in the past the broth was very flavorful, and I personally liked the floating bits of omelette in it.
Haven’t had their dan dan noodles. I’ll put them on the list.
I’ve continued to enjoy their sizzling chicken and their hotpot over the last few months. I’ve been confined to delivery, though, and they have several specials that they don’t deliver but that sound fascinating. Were they on the board when you were there?
I had sort of decided what to order before I went in, so I didn’t pay that much attention to the specials. But I’m pretty sure that list is in the window at the front of the restaurant along with a sign for some lobster dish. So they’re likely available, but I don’t have any real hard intel about them.
Let me continue by giving credit where credit is due:
That’s what first interested me in 5 Spices (Cambridge). There was also a Chowhound thread, but – surprise! – I can’t find it now in this narrow window between the flickering of the CH flame and its death.
I’ve had the “Xin Jiang Big Plate Chicken” here among other things recently. It was very good, but not as good as other Da Pan Ji versions I’ve had in Queens – less star anise here, fewer aromatics generally, and the noodles, while chewy and good, were round, not the flat, thick ones I’ve come to expect. Plus, at $25ish (delivery price) for a mediumish portion, it’s very expensive compared to the 12 bucks I’ve paid in the past in Queens for essentially an entire chicken strewed across a half-sheet tray that was loaded with oil-soaked potatoes. The chicken here was excellent, clearly of higher pedigree, but the potatoes were in short supply.
But, enough carping. What I’m here to tell you is that their clam and zucchini soup is superb. Nicely cooked clams, very soft strips of zucchini, and a thin broth that, with its forest of slivered ginger and loads of black and white pepper, packs a universe of flavor that you wouldn’t expect. Try it.