261 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6AH
020 761 31366
‘Hello? Is that the Chinese takeaway? Great, can I have Ox tendon in spicy oil, fried green beans with preserved vegetable and chilli, Sichuan style tofu and seafood, fried pork tendons in spicy salt, a skewered whole quail and the fried lamb with onion and lots of cumin and chilli. What do you mean you’ve never heard of any of that? What kind of Chinese restaurant are you?”
Clearly not Gourmet San where we had all that in rush of dishes that the table could barely hold. And those weren’t the most exotic dishes on the menu by a long way; they had run out of the skewered rabbit’s legs (choice of front or back) but the pig lungs were still on the menu, if no longer in the pig.
Yes Gourmet San is genuine hardcore Chinese Sichuan cooking, and while the takeaway menu does offer the usual sweet and sour rubbish, you wont find any of the predominantly Chinese customers touching that with a ten-foot chopstick. In fact you have to be lucky to get one of only three or four English menus in the place to even discover the real McCoy, but if you do it reads like a lesson in animal anatomy – trotters, intestines, pigs’ ears and over it all hangs the aroma of the mighty Sichuan pepper. This strange spice is actually no relation to the black pepper and is not hot either, but citrussy in aroma and flavour and with a peculiar way of numbing the mouth while setting up a tingling that can linger for hours afterwards. Mixed with plenty of dried chilli and salt it creates the backbone for Sichuan cooking’s uniqueness.
The Ox tendon was slippery and a challenge for the chopsticks, and its gelatinous texture was perfect but, because it’s a cold dish, the fattiness was exaggerated. The hot lamb with cumin was deeply flavoured and quite delicious and the cumin could be detected long before the dish arrived the short distance from the boxed kitchen where a man was turning out skewers of lamb, squid etc at a remarkable rate. The cheapest ones come in £1.00 a pop, which is a great deal for such a real deal. The Tofu and seafood l found a bit bland; the seafood must have been hiding under a rock because I could barely find any. Loved the green beans though which were thinly coated in flavoured oil and the copious dried chillies alongside gave spice, which was bearable as long as you didn’t actually try and eat any of them. Well maybe one or two, but caution was advised.
The skewered quail looked disturbingly like the baby from Eraserhead, but it was perfectly cooked and spicy and tender with the flavour of the marinade/rub well seeped in. The pork tendons, call them knuckles to avoid shock, were perhaps the best dish of all. Salty and spicy and we chewed them down to the bone with glee.
It was all good and cheap and cheerfully served by the busy staff and already as we left at 7pm the now infamous queues were starting outside. They give you boxes to take home what you can’t eat of the generous portions and so I ended up surreptitiously nibbling a pork tendon as the Northern line rattled me past Kennington and home. Gourmet San must be one of the best genuine Chinese restaurants in London and one that anyone can afford, just make sure you get there early and remember they only take cash. One thing is for sure, you’ll never settle for Sweet and Sour again.