I haven’t driven because Lily told me earlier she’d be up for a few drinks. It is still early evening and the Loft Lounge is busy with groups of young women. Other than a bloke with heavy tattoos, a backwards flat hat and a red liquid in a cocktail glass, I’m the only dude. It’s an education.
Then I spot Lily. She’s sorry she’s a bit late and yes, she’s thirsty. Phew. She says she likes sex on the beach. Word to that, sister.
“A virgin sex on the beach,” she adds.
Crumbs. Clearly, this is not the night I had envisaged. I thought we were going to eat Chinese food.
Following an awkward exchange of glances, it becomes apparent that a virgin sex on the beach is a young person’s drink, like sex on the beach, but without alcohol. Basically, it’s a healthy Tizer. I have another beer.
Lily has agreed to accompany me for dinner to give me some tips on Chinese cuisine. She has lived in Birmingham for over a year and says the best Chinese food is to be found back at her apartment. She’s not into spice, or heavy, or gloop. Her mum cooks tremendous soups, apparently. But Shanghai Lily Snr is in Shanghai, so the soup’s off.
Instead, we go to Red N Hot in Hurst Street for no other reason than I haven’t been there before and neither has Lily. If I’m honest, I fancy a pile of rice and hunks of salty, melty pork at a cafe but I decide we’d better upgrade to a posher restaurant.
Red N Hot has outlets in London and Manchester and purports to specialise in authentic Szechuan cooking. Is it authentic?
I have no idea. I’ve never been to Chengdu and its environs, which is why Lily has hopped on board as my wingman/woman.
Peering through the window, Red N Hot looks like it could do with a lick of paint but then again, so could I.
The small, tiered and rather tired dining room appears to be full of Chinese friends, groups and families. Lily reckons it’s worth a punt. Punt we do.
First things first. We order too much food. There are five good-sized dishes and rice, which with an iced red tea for Lily (they’re fresh out of virgins) and a beer for me, comes to about £50. It’s a mixed bag.
The English description says just that: Bang Bang Chicken. The Chinese version tells you everything that’s in it, which allows Chinese and those versed in the language to be able to make an informed choice.
I wish they’d do the same with English descriptions.
The bang bang gets the nod nod from Lily. It’s got savoury magnetism but it is undeniably sweet. I reckon four diners could split it. Just spread loads of the sauce over the rice, which is good.
We’ve got to have a regional speciality so we have “beef tendon with Sichuan spices in dry pot.” Yes, tendon of beef. I am very enthusiastic about the dish, not least because I have completely misread the menu and am expecting beef tenderloin. I had thought: “Hmm, tenderloin? Bit American. What’s wrong with beef fillet? Maybe it’s a Sichuan/Szechuan thing…” It isn’t; it’s a tendon thing.
As pots of connective tissue go, it looks mighty fine. My inner Frankie Howerd says: “That’ll put hairs on your chest, missus.”
After chewing several hunks of the yellowy, sallow main ingredient I am confused.
There’s no meat as such, nothing discernibly capable of having formerly transmitted blood. There’s a background hum to the flavour. I know it’s not beef fat because it’s too fibrous. Plus, I love beef fat. This I am not so sure about.
Lily tells me the dish is very authentic, typical of Sichuan/Szechuan. “Good,” she says.
I smile and take another look at the menu and the tenderloin/tendon misread becomes apparent.
If you ask me, I’d say the mushrooms are borderline fermented, slippery, pickled, and don’t speak of that earthy fullness to which my western European taste receptors have become accustomed.
Lily says the taste is bang on. Bang bang on, even.
Like sex on the beach, it’s an education and this, as far as I am concerned, is a good thing. When food stops being an adventure, it’s a dead end; comforting perhaps, but still a dead end.
One thing we do agree on is that the fish fillet with spring onion is Dullsville, Arizona. There are a few peas, chillis and onion tops thrown on the top, but no sauce to speak of, no flavour to speak of.
The salt and pepper king prawn is altogether more successful. The dish is the most expensive of the night, at £14.50, and is well cooked, i.e. the prawn isn’t incinerated. Following Lily’s lead, I eat the whole critter, Chinese nose to tail eating. I like it. There’s crunch and sweetness.
And inspite of, probably because of, the tendon, I am desperate to try more of this food. There are pages of vegetable dishes with all sorts of greenness and graveyness and, fresh homemade noodles with braised beef, Chengdu dan dan noodles, meat dumplings in spicy sauce, scalded guy lan…
The only problem is that there are so many other places to try in Chinatown. The area’s fortunes and atmosphere have changed immeasurably for the better thanks to the work of the Southside business district crew, individual bar and cafe owners and restaurateurs. I would happily eat here once a week. Just hold the tendon.
Red N Hot
Tel: 0121 666 6076
35 Hurst Street, Birmingham B5 4BJ