On this pizza blog, I do try to resist adding reviews of every restaurant we try, but some are sufficiently exceptional that they need to be known by more people; hence this departure to talk about Sichuan food.
Living on the border of West Chester and Exton, I have pretty easy access to the wonderful dining options in downtown West Chester along Market Street and Gay Street. It's even closer to find restaurants at the south end of Exton, along Route 100 and in the "Main Street" shopping district. However there is one distinct difference -- West Chester has restaurants that are unique and typically locally-owned.
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Exton has more chains and formulaic restaurants that cater to timid suburban tastes. Chipotle, On the Border, Buca di Beppo, Bob Evans, Longhorn, Red Robin, Bonefish. We were blessed with a good Vietnamese restaurant - The Green Papaya - but like the excellent Japanese restaurant Aoki on Main Street (review HERE), it was too exotic for Extonites, and it closed.
With that as background, it's a nice surprise that Exton has two very good Chinese restaurants serving some authentic dishes. Han Dynasty (see our review HERE) is highly acclaimed, although I suspect that chef Han Chiang spends more time at his other five locations in and around Philly. This celebrity chef has toned down the flavors for Exton, but dishes like Dan Dan Noodles have the full flavor and fire.
Exton also has Z Wei, a large and pretty restaurant that follows the trend of trying to be All Things Asian; they have Thai, sushi, and Chinese food. The main menu has the familiar Americanized dishes, but you can ask for a Sichuan menu and it contains some authentic dishes that they render expertly.
At a Chinese New Year party, we asked some China-born Exton area residents where they like to go for Chinese food, and they were unanimous in endorsing R&Z's Ping Pong, a relative newcomer in Wayne PA in the Gateway Shopping Center (near Panera and Trader Joe's). On a Saturday evening, BARIC (born and raised in China) and I had a chance to try it.
We arrived late - around 8:30 - and the restaurant was about half full. I had expected to find mostly Chinese patrons, but there was a mix of diners and age groups. The interior is clean, modern, open, and brightly lit. I'd actually prefer it to be less open and bright, so that it feels more like a restaurant and less like a cafeteria, but that is a very minor complaint.
The main menu booklet is mostly Americanized choices, but there is a separate page listing the more authentic Sichuan choices, including duck, lamb, frog, and offal offerings. We opted for an appetizer of clear noodles in chili sauce, oxtail soup, and poached fish and cabbage in spicy chili sauce. We were dismayed to learn that the oxtail soup is a winter-only option, and they were out of clear noodles.
|Dan Dan Noodles|
We fell back to our default appetizer of Dan Dan Noodles, and to replace the oxtail we chose a dish of Chinese sausage and leeks. The waiter told us enthusiastically that the sausage is house-made. We brought along a bottle of wonderful Helios Ale from Downingtown's Victory Brewing Company to this BYOB, and we were supplied with wine glasses for the brew. We also we served some excellent pale and mild tea.
The Dan Dan Noodles arrived first, and looked beautiful - pale white noodles covered in spicy sauce with bits of ground pork. The noodles were fresh and tender, the sauce was nicely balanced. When we were ordering, we had discussed getting a mix of spicy and non-spicy foods; we've often made the mistake of choosing all spicy dishes and leaving with our faces on fire. I suspect that our server, overhearing an American discussing spicy foods, decided that we couldn't handle the typical heat that this dish delivers. This was the tamest Dan Dan Noodles I've ever had. Still very delicious, and in a way I could better appreciate the other flavors, but next time I will be sure to let them know they can dial up the heat a little for this laowai.
We inhaled the noodles, and the kitchen's timing was excellent as the other dishes soon arrived. The fish and cabbage dish, which we've had in other authentic Sichuan restaurants, was pretty much as expected. It contained a lot of fresh tender white fish fillets in a savory sauce. I actually would have liked a bit more cabbage, but that is a minor quibble. BARIC had ordered in Chinese, and instructed our server to prepare it "medium" spicy. The dish was tasty, but again we found it to be pretty mild. It's so hard to communicate your spice tolerance to a server who has eaten blazing hot foods from birth; I often get dishes that are too tame, and occasionally dishes that melt my fork. It's more amusing than annoying, however.
The star entrée was the sausage. It was dense, chewy, and had complex flavors of pork, garlic, salt, and a hint of sweetness that was offset perfectly by the bright green slender leeks. Perfection. Next time, I may ask for some of this sausage to take home to use as a pizza topping; it can stand with any soppressata. Cured pork products know no boundaries!
I'm grateful to have Z Wei and Han Dynasty nearby, but I think we will more often make the 15 mile drive to Wayne for the food at Ping Pong. Han Dynasty still has the best Dan Dan, but Ping Pong rises above the Exton choices on most counts. We were delighted with our meal, the total came to just $35 before tip, we were able to bring along our own adult beverages, and we had pleasant service in spite of the missing menu items and the conservative approach to applying spice.
From the outside, Ping Pong looks like just another typical Chinese restaurant in a strip mall, but there is something special and genuine taking place in the kitchen. It's a gem and a grand bargain. Five stars out of five.