A few weeks back, I tried out Bite of Hong Kong and fell in love with authentic Cantonese food. So I was delighted when Chris, the manager from Flaming Kitchen, invited me for a meal. Flaming Kitchen is an authentic Szechuan restaurant also in Chinatown. Bite of Hong Kong opened my eyes to what I’ve been missing with regards to other cultures’ cuisines, and Flaming Kitchen only continued my education.
Jason and I met in Manhattan last Thursday after work. We strolled through some of the markets in Chinatown, something we were too rushed to do during our last visit. When we entered one shop, we were not greeted or spoken to, but were left uninterrupted to browse the rows of bizarre ingredients. These ranged from 40 or 50 variations of ginseng, to beans, to sea horses, to mushrooms, dried fruits, dried fish bladders, deer tails, and deer antlers. I’m not sure how some of these things are used; I’m guessing some are edible and some are part of Chinese medicine, but I’ll probably never know for sure. Either way, it was really cool to see this stuff as a visual appetizer to our meal.
At about 5:00 we headed in to Flaming Kitchen for dinner.
The place feels new and fresh inside. The decor is a modernized Chinese… a little bit more upscale then I’d expect for a little hole in the wall. I started out with a Taro bubble tea while we perused the overwhelmingly huge menu. I saw many dishes similar to the ones I had seen at Bite of Hong Kong. Luckily, our waiter at Flaming Kitchen spoke English well and was able to give us a ton of suggestions and guidance. With his help, we managed to narrow down our choices to the following:
- Sliced spicy chili sauce
- Steamed pork and crabmeat soup dumplings
- Ox tongue and tripe with chili sauce
- Crispy tea smoked duck
- Braised whole fish (tilapia) with Szechuan chili miso sauce
- Sautéed Frog with spicy chili sauce
There was a theme of chili sauce, and the dishes’ presentation was consistent throughout the entire meal. While I am no authentic Szechuan food aficionado, I can comfortably say that after this meal I get the essence of Szechuan cooking.
First up was the sliced conch. I had never eaten conch before and had no idea what to expect. I was nervous, and so incredibly impressed by the dish. As my first official bite of their signature chili sauce, I was relieved to find that the spiciness of the dish, while very much present, was also very much tolerable. Throughout the whole meal, I continued to appreciate the perfect balance of spice and edibility. This cold dish was like conch kimchi. The texture of the conch was similar to calamari, but less chewy, and the taste was very mild. The sauce was spicy, and oniony, and exquisitely flavorful. Jason and I licked this plate clean.
Next up were the soup dumplings. I kind of thought I liked this place after the conch, but once I bit into the soup dumplings, I was certain. This appetizer was one of the most delicious bites of Chinese food I have ever, ever tasted. The broth in the dumpling was oddly sweet, and perfectly balanced with the balsamic vinegar they gave you to drizzle in your soup spoon. The filling was tender and generous. Just remembering and writing about this dish is actually making my mouth water, and making me need to schedule my return to Flaming Kitchen so I can get more.
After the soup dumplings, we had a minor setback. We had ordered the ox tongue and tripe, but instead received the duck tongues. While I’m confident that our waiter would have fixed this mistake without any hesitation, we decided that we didn’t really mind trying this dish to compare it to the fried duck tongues from Bite of Hong Kong, so we didn’t even mention it. While I really enjoyed the fried version of the tongues a few weeks back, this preparation was not for me. When you eat a duck tongue, there are little bits of cartilage inside. It’s weird, but I was able to get past it and enjoy the dish at Bite of Hong Kong as the fried batter was so flavorful. This sautéed version of the tongues didn’t give me enough distraction from the bony bites, and while the sauce was delicious, I just couldn’t enjoy the texture of each bite. I have a feeling that the ox tongue and tripe would have been a very different experience, so that’s at the top of my list for when we return!
Next up was the tea smoked duck, one of the recommendations of our waiter. This dish was different from many of the other dishes we had, as it had no spicy chili sauce. It’s a great option if you’re someone who doesn’t like any spice at all. I absolutely loved this dish. It was such a strange flavor, between the super smokiness and the subtle hints of tea spices. The meat was tender and juicy. Perfect.
Next was the braised whole fish (tilapia) with chili miso sauce. The moment this dish arrived, the smell reminded me of something and it took a while to figure it out. But I finally got it: the caramelized shrimp dish from Carol’s Cafe in Staten Island. Jam packed with ginger and garlic, the smell is very distinct… if you ever have the chance to try either of the dishes you’ll know what I’m talking about instantly. This is a dish that we ordered based on our waiter’s recommendation. Honestly, I had low expectations – I don’t usually go with fish entrees. But I was completely blown away. The sauce was incredible – so sweet with just a hint of spice. The fish itself was beautiful. At first, it took us a few minutes to get a feel for how to peel the tender meat off of the bones. But then we realized how simple it was and were able to get giant chunks of meat, drenched in the sauce, without any bone interference at all. The skin was soft and added even more flavor and texture to each bite. I love when a dish surprises me.
Our last dish was the sautéed frog with spicy chili sauce. This was the spiciest of all the dishes we tried, but still manageable at least for Jason and I. It was good, but not my favorite. I love frog legs, but they’re full of very tiny bones. In this dish, the frog was chopped up into chunks, so the bones were harder to identify pull out, and it was pretty challenging to eat around them. There was a mystery vegetable in the dish, which I learned was a luffa, that I really loved – it’s a type of squash. The dish also had mushrooms and onions, and I found that I preferred the veggies in the dish over the frog itself, because I was able to get nice full bites without worrying about cracking my tooth on a bone.
During our meal, Chris (the manager who I had emailed with) stopped by our table and checked on how we were liking the meal. He was genuinely excited for us to try everything, and I got the feeling that he is really proud of his restaurant and what they do. And he should be. Flaming Kitchen is a gem, and they earned a four star Baconboozer rating from me. All of the dishes we tried were good, and some of them (the soup dumplings, conch, duck, and fish) were really over the top amazing. The bubble tea was refreshing and the service was great; it’s so nice to have help from a waiter when navigating an unfamiliar cuisine! I can’t wait to come back and relive the dumplings, with some new choices from the menu!