When you think you've had it all you realize you haven't been to Qin Shan Zhai, a busy middle-class eatery that claims to specialize in wild herbs that offer health benefits to all who eat them.
The menu is another one of those endless arrangements of appetizing images that stimulate your hungry fingers to point wildly around and order much more than you can stomach, and luckily a good share of the listings are "duibuqi meiyou."
First to arrive was the mini snail, which Dan took a bite of ("packaged spicy tofu cubes" was the obvious textural comparison) only to discover mushroom remnants inside, prompting him to quickly return the dish (Dandoval has a strong mushroom aversion).
Next up was the huai shan dandanmian (淮山担担面), a small basic dish which Dan liked most of all, perhaps not surprisingly since the RMB5 bowl of noodles vaguely resembled fangbianmian. Dan was positively surprised by the green pepper deep-fried slices of pig face (青椒煸腊猪脸), which tasted almost like bacon but with the chewiness of beef jerky. But after a few bites he lost interest in this "very generic almost sweet pork flavor." The huge portion of duck blood with tuckahoe, a medicinal mushroom also known as fuling (茯苓土鸭血) prompted Dan to complain, as usual, about the texture of the congealed blood ("It breaks easier than tofu") although he did praise (if you can call it that) the "red soupy mala flavor."
Finally we arrived at the strange: chrysanthemum-flavored green abalone (菊香碧绿鲜鲍仔). Green like spinach, extremely thick but not exactly creamy and with an unusual but not bad combination of flavors, this dish, according to the menu, would "enrich sperm and eyesight." The dark-colored tortoise jelly (美容养颜龟苓膏) promised to provide beautifying effects—and, indeed, eating it was like eating some sort of face cream—and Dan used it as a palette cleanser between the dishes, though only time will tell if it yielded the promised effects.
Rock-sugar-braised nuts was the menu's translation of 冰糖百合炖皂仁, an interesting jelly dessert with a coconut-meat-like texture, the taste of which reminded Dan of "Chinese medicine when they try to make it taste good but not sweet." The dish left us with a mouth full of chewing-gum freshness and extra yin.
The RMB100 per person we spent could have easily been RMB50 if we'd skipped some of the unremarkable dishes like stewed chicken (松茸三七炖鸡) or 养颜胖大海, a "seafood soup" that just tasted like ocean water. An RMB10 service charge was added to the bill.
As the menu promised, Dan's appetite was "vigorated" until the end. The Sichuanese spicing was dialed down, and although no dish displayed particularly impressive culinary skills, none was especially bad. After all, it's a place that serves busloads of nearby Wuhouci and Jinli tourists who come for the medicinal hotpots and soups (or loud conversations and smoke). And so it's an option in the area if you happen to be (with) a diner who can't handle the mala but still wants to experiment.
Qin Shan Zhai Restaurant (click directions)
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 66.
Photos by Dan Sandoval.