My friend Frank had to get up from the table and power-walk his way to the restroom during a recent meal at Gu’s Kitchen. The cause wasn’t what you’re thinking. His mouth was on ﬁre. His sinuses were gushing. He needed to blow his nose ferociously. Within a few minutes, he was back at the table whimpering but wolﬁng down the spicy food from China’s Sichuan Province. Meanwhile, our friend Ryan suffered more stoically. “It’s really hot,” he said multiple times. “It’s really not,” I said multiple times.
I’ve whined for decades about friends whose tolerance of spicy-hot cuisine is low, but in this case, I was surprised. Gu’s intentionally lowers the classic spice level. I was anxious to dine there because it recently debuted a menu of 20-plus specials. To understand the importance of that, you need to know the restaurant’s history. Gu’s Kitchen succeeds an earlier incarnation as Gu’s Bistro, which closed in 2015 after only a few years in business. Then, the Gu family opened the very tame Gu’s Dumplings at Krog Street Market. In all honesty, I’ve found the fare there disappointing and over-priced. So, when Gu’s Kitchen opened in November, I was happy, expecting a reprise of the original, complex menu. It turned out, I learned, to stress mainly noodles, dumplings, and stirfried concoctions, so I lost my urgency. Then came the specials that re-stimulated the enthusiasm of me and many other foodies.
Gu’s, which seats only about 40, requires you to order at a counter. I think this system works ﬁne at restaurants with an abbreviated menu. When you add 20 hand-written specials without much detail to a board above the counter and require customers to wait in line, people are going to feel pressured. Like us, you’ll probably end up mainly perusing the paper menus with the better-described dishes. I’m not saying the person taking our order wasn’t fully educated about the specials menu, which is indeed a reprisal of the original menu. I did notice some of my old favorites, including cumin lamb, smoked pork belly, and crispy beef, but I was stupidly anxious to try a dish that a friend had ordered years ago. I remembered that it was commonly served in Chinese-American restaurants but is Sichuan in origin and amazingly tasty when authentic. By process of elimination, I decided it must have been Kung Pao chicken. I ordered it.
We also ordered the restaurant’s famous Chengdu Cold Noodles, Spicy Crispy Fish, and Spicy Dried Eggplant. Despite the names, the only dish that earned more than one pepper on the menu was the eggplant and it didn’t come close to the heat of the noodles, which was the dish that caused Frank to frantically blow his nose. Don’t let him inﬂuence you. Gu’s noodles are sublime. Their heat derives from a bath in chili oil and a sweet sauce. They are served on a small rack, scattered with toasted sesame seeds, minced garlic, bean sprouts, and scallions.
The muddy-ﬂavored Kung Pao chicken was a huge disappointment. It certainly had no detectable heat. The peanuts and minced chicken made chopsticks useless without rice, which we had failed to order (we got some). The best dish on the table was the big chunks of white ﬁsh stir-fried in a coating of ﬂour and cornmeal. It was like eating huge hushpuppies with a surprise in the center. Served over a bed of garlic, ginger, and peppers, the pieces were lightly washed in mild chili and sesame oils. The most munchable dish was the batterfried sticks of eggplant with much the same spices as the ﬁsh. Understand that the peppers in these dishes include dried chilies and the famous numbing peppers, which clearly weren’t so numbing.
There are other full-menu Sichuan restaurants in town, like the deservedly named Masterpiece, but Gu’s is great for a quick meal. Please try the Sichuan fried chicken po’boy and let me know.