Restaurant: Huangcheng Laoma Restaurant (皇城老媽)

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 19

Some restaurants have so much atmosphere that it is difficult to concentrate on the food. At Huangcheng Laoma there are no such distractions.

Its spare, rather unstylish interior looks like it has been left over from a coffee shop, which, given that it is managed by the same group that operates the Sun Merry chain of bakeries and restaurants, might not come as too much of a surprise. While the decor might leave something to be desired, the food is definitely above average for the price and there are a number of dishes that might even be called outstanding.

The shop on Chunghsiao East Road has been going for two years and is the branch of a store on Yenchi Street, behind the CTS building, which has been there since 1988. That in turn was established based on a hugely popular chain in China.

While the Huangcheng Laoma name is the same on both sides of the Strait, the food, which is inspired by Sichuan, differs considerably.

The chain in China focuses mostly on hot pots, said Wang Wen-chi (王文啟) of the Ou-li (歐立) company, that manages the store. "With so much competition for local hot pot stores in Taipei, we have gone for a stronger selection of other Sichuan dishes."

This has proven a boon for local foodies who can get great Sichuan food for a reasonable price in comfortable, if uninspired, surroundings.

A dish that is absolutely to-die-for if you are a fancier of hot chili peppers is the spicy beef tendon (麻辣牛筋, NT$185), a cold dish that makes a great starter. The tendon is cooked in a mixture of spices (which is not to be lightly revealed), then it is frozen and shaved into paper-thin slices. It is seasoned with Zanthoxylum Piperitum, the Sichuan pepper then numbs the tongue rather than burns the throat. The mix of the cool, crunchy slices of tendon with the multilayered spiciness of the dressing is something to be savored. The addition of cold beer is highly recommended.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the very extensive menu that includes meats, fish and a selection of vegetarian dishes. Labeling indicates the spiciness of each dish, making it safe for those who want to test the waters of Sichuan cuisine with care.