Chinese food is something that has been accepted among the masses, but what the vast majority of people are familiar with reflects a cuisine that has been far removed from its roots. Just like 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 the typical one note Chinese American takeout joint. In Rochester, there are few options that diverge from the norm (Han Noodle Bar being a notable exception, but that is a story for another time) and when Chinese Hometown Restaurant popped on my radar a few months ago I didn’t know what to think. Their name isn’t much to look at, but after seeing that a significant portion of their menu was focused on Szechuan cooking I got excited about the possibility of getting over to Ridge Road and seeing if the food lived up to what I was reading.
Szechuan (or Sichuan or Szechwan depending on how you prefer to see it spelled) food often contains dried chiles, chile oil and Szechuan peppercorns as headline ingredients and that was what I was looking for when I surveyed the menu to order for my fiancée and my Chinese friend from Boston who was visiting for the weekend. After asking the lady who was serving us about some of their specialties, we ended up with four dishes to share that covered some of the basics and a meal that was immensely satisfying even with some ups and downs in execution.
Everything came out at the same time family style and we dug right into the pork dumplings that were swimming in chile oil. Although the dish looked intimidating, the oil didn’t pack the spicy punch I was expecting it to and came across a touch on the sweet side instead of purely savory. The dumplings were a good, steamed version of the pork and scallion dumplings we all know and love so no issues there.
The same sweetness was apparent in the mild chile oil that was slicked over the ribbon noodles in the dan dan mien. Despite that issue, the minced pork brought the salty to balance the oil out and the noodles had just enough chew to them to make sure the whole thing didn’t end up one note texturally.
Our meal got turned up to 11 with the two meat based dishes that we ordered; the innocuous sounding diced chicken with red pepper and the sliced lamb with cumin. In Szechuan cooking the combination of the numbing sensation from the Szechuan peppercorns and the heat of chiles in referred to as málà and it is something I’ve come to really enjoy. I first was introduced to it when I had the chicken wings with explosive peppers at Mission Chinese in San Francisco and ever since I’ve been hoping to find it here in Rochester. The diced chicken dish delivered on the málà in a mild, but satisfying way and was combined with the crunchy, salty coating leading to a very well balanced and addictive bite.
Despite the popularity of the chicken dish, the favorite of the table was the sliced lamb with cumin. Although mild in heat, there was a menagerie of other elements including dried chiles, fresh peppers, shallots and a light dusting of Szechuan peppercorn that made it sing. The occasional bite into a dried chile seed brought the heat and the lamb was tender with a light amount of gaminess that fit well with the other fresh ingredients. I thought this dish was perfectly seasoned with the warm, earthy cumin as the main star and enough salt to raise the profile of everything else involved.
As a quick note, the interior falls right into line with the traditional sit down Americanized Chinese restaurant with some booths and tables with lazy susans in the middle. There is a sushi bar is the back but it appears to be currently unused. The service was attentive and helpful throughout our visit and especially after we indicated we wanted more traditional food she pointed us in a great direction. I’ll definitely be making a return visit and have started recommending this as one of my favorite Asian restaurants in the area. Hope they bring the heat next time!