Cheap and cheerful Chinese chilli chow
There are few Chinese restaurants in Fitzrovia with the exception of a dilapidated-looking buffet on Goodge Street. This is due of course to the close proximity of Chinatown, but one interesting option is San Xia Ren Jia (no, I don’t know how to pronounce that either) on Goodge Street, almost directly opposite said buffet on a site formerly occupied by a short-lived Korean restaurant. Although San Xia’s excessively long menu has all the usual anglicised Cantonese dishes (sweet and sour bollocks et al), there’s also a wide selection of Sichuanese dishes.
Sichuanese cuisine has become relatively popular in London in the past few years as interest in Chinese cooking widens beyond Cantonese food. One defining element of Sichuanese food is the Sichuanese peppercorn which is spicy in a very distinctive way. Rather than an intensely hot, burning sensation as with some other chills, the peppercorn has an initial citrusy flavour followed by a tingling numbness and a heat that seems to spread throughout the body leading to intense sweats.
I started out with some gently sour and tart shredded carrots and cabbage which was a pleasing way to pass the time until the main dishes arrived.
Sliced pig’s ear may sound unappetising, but it’s actually a surprisingly moreish dish. The thin, waxy, slippery slices of ear have a vaguely fatty, bacon-like quality to them. They help bring out the citrusy hits of the Sichuanese peppercorn which is quickly followed by the intense numbing heat. The meat is drenched in a chilli oil made from the peppercorn – continuously wiping it off your chin becomes old quickly.
A more sedate dish is the five spices beef. The cold slices of beef have a surprisingly dark, salty soy sauce-like flavour to them which may sound a little dull given what’s supposed to be in five spice marinade, but after the heated tingliness of the pig’s ear, it’s actually quite a relief.
If you want a sliced beef dish with more punch to it, there’s the cold sliced beef served with tripe. The tripe is rather thin and weedy, but does have a nice wrinkly texture. It’s all doused yet again in peppercorn chilli oil, so this dish has the same intense numbing, tingling spiciness to it but is balanced out by a surprising nuttiness.
The bubbling cauldron of chilli chicken was kept warm by a small portable heater placed under the dish. Even more so than the previous dishes the chilli chicken is numbingly, tinglingly hot. Sadly the small, bony pieces of chicken made eating this dish more of a chore than it should’ve been.
San Xia has a barebones canteen feel to it, although this didn’t seem to bother the hoards of Mandarin-speaking students packed into the place during the weekday lunchtime of my visit with Rodan and Gamera. Service was helpful and attentive, although this may have been due to the fact that the manager turned out to be an old friend of Rodan’s.
San Xia Ren Jia is a cheap and mouth numbingly authentic way of trying out Sichuanese food. Some of the dishes can be very oily though and you’d need a compass to navigate the massive menu. I suspect there are better Sichuanese restaurants in London, but San Xia is still a good budget option.
Name: San Xia Ren Jia
Address: 29 Goodge Street, London, W1T 2PP
Phone: 020 7636 7688
Web: http://www.sanxia.co.uk/ (working only erratically at time of writing)
Opening Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11:30-23:00, Thursday-Saturday 11:30-23:30, Sunday midday-22:00
Reservations: yeah, if you want.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks shared between three people: approx. £15