Chou's Kitchen - Dongbei Cuisine in Chandler

Good eating in the Valley of the Sun
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

One of the most exciting stops I've made over the past couple of months, made only more exciting by the fact that they're actually getting some mainstream love, is Chou's Kitchen in Chandler. For anybody who hasn't caught the New Times or AZCentral pieces, Chou's is a little joint that serves up Dongbei cuisine -- that of northeastern China. I knew that I didn't know much about Dongbei, but it wasn't until digging a little bit that I started to realize just how unusual it is to find in the States. It sounds like there are a smattering of places in San Francisco and Flushing, for obvious reasons, but the number of major US cities where you can't find this food period is big. Really big. I'm starting to think Chou's is more of a blessing that we realize.

So I did a little digging, and perhaps the most scholarly piece I came across was published in Gastronomica back in 2009. It's a little wonky in terms of the historical and regional influences from which the cuisine emerged (which, frankly, makes it kind of awesome), and it gets into some defining characteristics, like a heavy reliance on wheat rather than rice, the ubiquity of pickled vegetables since the growing climate is harsh and the season is short, lots of warm, hearty stews to fight off the cold... that kind of thing. I also found another article and a blog post of note:

Northeast China Branches Out in Flushing (NYT)
Dongbei Delights (EatingAsia)

Anyway, the food... some highlights spanning two trips to Chou's:
Egg and Chive Pockets
Egg and Chive Pockets
chouseggchivepockets.jpg (75.16 KiB) Viewed 22441 times
Here's the focus on wheat rather than rice. From what I understand, a lot of the texture in the various doughs is achieved simply by the temperature at which it's worked. These guys had a very flaky texture, nicely browned and crisped, with a well-seasoned mix of eggs and Chinese chives inside. There isn't much here in the way of ingredients. It's all technique.
Pork and Cabbage Dumplings
Pork and Cabbage Dumplings
chousdumplings.jpg (50.05 KiB) Viewed 22441 times
These were extremely hearty and doughy, almost reminiscent of pierogi to me. The filling was a really moist, mellow mix of pork and shredded napa cabbage. Simple and delicious.
Beef Pies
Beef Pies
chousbeefpies.jpg (89.71 KiB) Viewed 22441 times
These have gotten a lot of play for good reason, because they're freaking delicious. The dough's got some give, but it's griddled so that it's crisp bordering on crunchy, and the filling is a richly flavored ground beef mix that's greasy in the best way possible.
Cold Noodles
Cold Noodles
chousspicynoodles.jpg (96 KiB) Viewed 22441 times
Of course I can't find my menu now, so I can't remember what the actual name of this dish was. But I was really taken aback because it seemed more Sichuan to me than anything. It was oily and had some serious ma la going on (the mix of hot chiles and numbing Sichuan pepper), but it skewed more heavily towards the Sichuan pepper than the heat. I had this both times, and the second pass was a little more tame (I preferred the first, more aggressively flavored bowl), but this is a great dish for anybody who has an affinity for Sichuan. Better than I've had at the Sichuan places in town, frankly. Though I wonder if this is typical Dongbei, or a dish that migrated, or perhaps just something the chef likes to prepare? I need to ask. I'm curious to know if dishes like this are also found in the northeast.
Meatball Stew
Meatball Stew
chousmeatballstew.jpg (76.51 KiB) Viewed 22441 times
Again, with the lack of an actual name. This one really snuck up on me. It's large, light meatballs (primarily beef... perhaps a blend?) stewed in a clay pot with lots of napa cabbage and slippery glutinous noodles, and it's very, very gently seasoned. The first bite is like, "Oh, okay." But then you have another bite. And another bite. And it kind of gets its hooks in you, and it's just this really mellow, comforting, warm dish that makes perfect sense for cold weather climes. It's really humble, but it ended up being one of my favorites.

Anyway, I need to get down there and spend some time talking with these folks. Especially since they recently expanded the menu and I haven't been since. Anybody else had any experience with Dongbei, here or otherwise?

Chou's Kitchen
910 North Alma School Road
Chandler, AZ 85224
480-821-2888
Dominic Armato
Firenza00
Posts: 26
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

I love Chou's, but I think you know that already. :) We haven't ventured far off the dumpling offerings, though, because they are just so good. My only issue is once I start eating the dumplings, I get a craving for a full dim sum menu. Those beef meat pies are truly amazing. Just be VERY careful you don't bite into them and get a mouth full of molten broth. And order them when you first sit down, as the meat pies take the longest to cook.

On my last visit I noticed the menus looked different and thought there were some new items. Items seemed to be grouped differently so I wasn't sure.
User avatar
chrislee
Posts: 174
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Scottsdale, AZ

Post

Also a big, big fan of the beef pies and the cold noodles.

Another dish that really stood out to me and that I continue to think about and crave is the cumin lamb. Same effect on my wife when I brought the leftovers home. Cumin lamb on some white rice is so yummy.

Need to go back again now. :)
User avatar
MyLifeOnVacatio
Posts: 354
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

Post

[Cross-posted from a Chou's event thread -Mod]

Beef pies are a must. The pork are good too, but the beef are just wonderful.

I also love the buns (don't have the menu for the specific name, maybe fried buns?). Add a drop of vinegar or soy sauce to the filling to brighten.

We also tried the pork neck bones yesterday. The name might not sound enticing, but there are some delicious morsels on those bones. Lightly sauced and scented with anise, they were delicious. When I told husband that we tried them, he recalled that they had been recommended to us on a previous visit as a regional specialty.

I don't normally go out of my way to order lamb, but I really enjoyed the Cumin Lamb. It was nice and spicy, stir fried with red pepper, onion and scallion. The meat was a little chewy, but I suspect that was by design.

The potato, eggplant, and 'jalapeño' was delicious as always, and we found out the jalapeños are actually Anaheim peppers. Simple and good.

After doing a little reading on dongbei cuisine this morning, we'll have to try the green bean jelly noodles. Hopefully Dom or Barbara can add photos, especially of the crisp little crust on the buns. Great outing!
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

What a fabulous meal. With each successive visit I'm becoming more and more convinced of how special this place is. The food here just feels right... even in the simplest dishes, they nail all of those little intangibles that separate the good from the great.
Pork Neck Bones
Pork Neck Bones
chousporkneckbones.jpg (63.43 KiB) Viewed 22349 times
The bones. The bones! It's not just about using all of the bits (though that's a good enough reason). The... stuff... it gets in there. It makes it meatier and richer. These are a little bit of work, and require either a willingness to use fingers or some nimble chopstick maneuvering and no small amount of sucking, but sometimes that's what it takes to get the most flavorful bits!
Potato, Eggplant and Chiles
Potato, Eggplant and Chiles
chouspotatoeggplantchiles.jpg (53.61 KiB) Viewed 22349 times
This is so perfect. This is China, right here. We almost talked ourselves into trying the shredded potato since MyLifeOnVacatio has had this one a lot, and I'm glad we didn't (or maybe not.. we'll find out next time, I guess :-) ). There's nothing fancy here, it's really understated, but it's just so perfect. This is like the traditional Chinese version of one of Charleen Badman's simpler vegetable dishes. Let them speak! Hilarious that the chiles turned out to be Anaheims, too. When I asked what type of chiles she uses, Tont (was that how she spelled her name?) said it was a Chinese chile, and when I asked where she got it, she told me they have them at Fry's. So I asked to see it, and she brought out a fresh one -- sure enough, an Anaheim -- which the little lady promptly co-opted for playing telephone. She insisted that it's the exact same chile. Which is funny, because last time I was in China I was thinking about how similar some of the chiles they used were to Anaheims. Apparently they were!
Cumin Lamb
Cumin Lamb
chouscuminlamb.jpg (59.91 KiB) Viewed 22349 times
I agree with MyLifeOnVacatio about the toughness of the meat. I can't say it bothered me, but I can see how it might be off putting to some. And I don't know if that's by design or not, but it wouldn't surprise me. Great flavor, though. I'm used to what I believe is a more Sichuan-style, which is a little drier and screaming of cumin. This was strong, but it was mitigated a bit -- rounder, sweeter, more soy. To my tongue, a little bit of kick, but not too spicy. YMMV.
Fried Pork Buns...
Fried Pork Buns...
chousfriedporkbuns1.jpg (55.68 KiB) Viewed 22349 times
Wow. Just wow. When's the last time you got a pork bun and were completely focused on the bun rather than the pork? They came out like this, with this crisped layer of -- I don't know what -- drippings from the filling and residual flour from the bread, I can only assume. Once set down, she broke them apart and flipped them over...
...Right Side Up
...Right Side Up
chousfriedporkbuns2.jpg (50 KiB) Viewed 22349 times
...and they looked like this on the other side. The texture on these things is just incredible. There's that almost waxy outer skin, a dense and yeasty body, that thin, crispy underbelly... there's some serious artistry at work here.

I forgot my menu on the table too. I'm so annoyed. I might go back on Monday just to get one and scan it to help us compare notes. This place is so fabulous, you guys. I find myself wishing I could just dedicate a month to trying every single thing on the menu.

MyLifeOnVacatio... it sounds like you've been there a few times recently. Any others you've had that you haven't mentioned?
Dominic Armato
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

Also of note, I mentioned that I was surprised by how similar some of the dishes were to Sichuan, and asked if that was the intent, or if they're typical of Dongbei cuisine. She said that they're definitely Dongbei, similar to Sichuan but not the same. Which is so odd... geographically speaking, these regions are almost as far apart from each other as you can get within China. And yet some of those dishes are so similar. I really wish I knew how that came to be.
Dominic Armato
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 626
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

Post

Had a delicious lunch with friends at Chou's today! I ate many of your recommendations.. The Spicy Cold Noodles, Beef Pies, Pork Potstickers and Pork Buns. Everything you guys said, definitely true! What a great place. I also was recommended to try the Tiger Salad, which is listed on the menu under cold dish #5, I think. It just says something simple like carrot, cilantro and jalapeno.

Image

It was really really good. A punch to the taste buds of fresh herbs and layers of flavors. There was something in the salad that coated our mouths and made everything else taste funny. After a few bites, our ice water tasted like lemonade. The only thing that I can relate it to was miracle berries. Maybe someone with a better palate than me could pick it out, but I just tasted clinatro, onion, carrot, vinegar, peppers, peanut, tofu noodles and maybe some seaweed? Anyway, I will have the Tiger Salad next trip also, but I'll probably wait to the end so I can taste everything else without it's influence.
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

Woo! Glad you liked it, Scott!

I'm about 98% certain that your mystery flavor is Sichuan Pepper, or huajiao:
Sichuan Pepper (Huajiao)
Sichuan Pepper (Huajiao)
sichuanpepper.jpg (46.16 KiB) Viewed 22282 times
These are the pods, and they're about the size of peppercorns, but they open up and there are dried seeds inside (which have no flavor and are just gritty), and they have kind of a light peppery, citrusy flavor, but they have the effect of numbing your tongue, like a little electrical sting that can linger for a while and -- if they use a lot of it -- can be quite strong. I've had some dishes where I've had one bite, and five minutes later my tongue is still numb (that's a little extreme). They're most prominent in Sichuan cuisine, where they're part of the distinctive spicy/tingly flavor. If you've ever heard the term "ma la," Sichuan pepper is the "ma" half, with chiles being the other.

I didn't remember it being in the salad -- it figures a lot more prominently in the cold spicy noodles -- but maybe they had a heavy hand with it today or something. We were talking a bit about that yesterday -- I was hoping she had a source for facing heaven chiles -- and she showed me some commercial mala oil that they use, so in some dishes they may just use the extract.

Anyway, yeah, it's really weird the first time you have it. And if you go to a good Sichuan place, with some dishes you'll get absolutely blasted by it. They definitely have a lighter hand with it here, which I suspect is a regional preference. In Sichuan restaurants, they won't hesitate to smack you around with it.
Dominic Armato
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

Here's the oil she showed me:
Prickly Ash Oil
Prickly Ash Oil
pricklyashoil.jpg (46.04 KiB) Viewed 22269 times
I think this is basically Sichuan Pepper oil -- I understand the plant is sometimes called prickly ash, and you can see the fresh pods in the illustration on the left. But I've never cooked with the oil, just the dried pepper.
Dominic Armato
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 626
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

Post

Ahh, that definitely sounds like what we experienced. I don't think i've had much Sichuan, so that's probably why I couldn't place it! Thanks Dom.
User avatar
MyLifeOnVacatio
Posts: 354
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

Post

The Tiger Salad looks great. Adding it to my list for next time. On our four (or so?) previous visits we had beef pies every time except once when we tried the pork. We also tried each of the dumplings over the course of those visits, as well as the egg & chive pockets. The cold cabbage salad was very nice, but our favorite other dish was the pork, eggplant and green bean hot pot. We had that a couple of months ago, so I can't recall great details about it, but i remember it being very flavorful and the pork really tender.

I, too, look forward to trying more dishes, which is certainly easier to accomplish with a larger group. Anybody want to go tomorrow? Is that too soon? 9-)
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

MyLifeOnVacatio wrote:...but our favorite other dish was the pork, eggplant and green bean hot pot. We had that a couple of months ago, so I can't recall great details about it, but i remember it being very flavorful and the pork really tender.
Do you know what cut of pork it was? (Just curious.)
MyLifeOnVacatio wrote:I, too, look forward to trying more dishes, which is certainly easier to accomplish with a larger group. Anybody want to go tomorrow? Is that too soon? 9-)
I wish I could, and no, absolutely not... respectively :-)
Dominic Armato
User avatar
MyLifeOnVacatio
Posts: 354
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

Post

Skillet Doux wrote: Do you know what cut of pork it was? (Just curious.)
They were chunks around the same size as the eggplant; pork butt/shoulder, maybe?
User avatar
BarbaraToombs
Posts: 1471
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Chandler/Tempe, Arizona

Post

Sorry for the delay in this post...I've had a houseful of out-of-town guests all weekend!

I was so impressed with this place! Looks kinda tacky/simple as you walk in, but that's often where you find your best "hidden gems," and that is indeed the case here. Who the hell cares about decor when the food is this good??

I found it fascinating to watch the ladies behind the glass window making the various dumplings...really is an art form all its own. Very precise, deft work...each type of dumpling seems to have its own unique "crimping."

The pork neck bones were amazing---and if you don't believe me, just ask Dom's cutie daughter, Julia (who he reportedly says never eats anything, although the two times I've been to Foodnik Fridays with her in tow, she hasn't had any problem whatsoever trying out various things! Poor Dom spent most of lunch picking the tender morsels off the pork neck bones for her to woof down (you wouldn't want to give the entire bone to a smaller child, as there are the odd "shards" that might pose a danger). These make my mouth water right now, just thinking about them. Such subtle tastes, with a hint of what we could only perceive as anise, but I'm still not positive on that one.

The cumin lamb...great flavors, but a little too much heat for me in my initial bite, as I apparently got a whopping big chile seed! (And I'm a wimp when it comes to heat anyway.) But in subsequent bites, very good spices and flavors, although I think they would do well in using bigger chunks of lamb so the toughness isn't as pronounced.

The meat pies....oh, the meat pies!!!! I really couldn't believe anything so seemingly simplistic could taste so good.

Mylifeonvacatio made a home-run suggestion with the potato/eggplant/pepper combo, and thank goodness she assured me that what they called "jalapenos" weren't that at all, and as Dom pointed out, we later found out they were mild Anaheims!

Was really glad that we decided on a last-minute addition of the pork buns...they were delicious, and again gave me an idea of the varieties of "dumplings" and the different textures/tastes that can be achieved with this fascinating cuisine.

I have been thinking about nothing else but this place for days...and, in fact, am going there again tonight for dinner, with husband, son and visiting cousin in tow--so that I can expose other "newbies" to the delights of Chou's. Can't wait!
User avatar
BarbaraToombs
Posts: 1471
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Chandler/Tempe, Arizona

Post

UPDATE:

So I dragged my husband, son, two cousins, and one of their wives back to Chou's this past Monday, since I'd been raving about the place to them all weekend. The resulting realization is that I can never eat as "adventurously" with any of them as I can with any of you on this Board. :?

Right away ordered two portions of the Beef Pies...those they loved (who wouldn't?). Also the Fried Pork Buns AND the Fried Beef Buns this time (both liked by all, although all in agreement that pork was best). Dom: the beef ones were served "upside down" just like the pork buns were...so the photo on the wall must be from when they are actually steaming.

Ordered the Stewed Pork Neck Bones right away, to which a resounding "Eeewwwww" echoed across the table...I kept assuring them they were DELICIOUS, but when they arrived, everyone just politely picked at them, and the only way I could get my husband to even TRY them was to get some meat off (like you did for your daughter, Dom!) and plop it on his plate. :| But anyway, that meant there were plenty for ME!!

Also had the Eggplant with Potatoes and "Jalapeno" again, which was also just picked at, but was every bit as delicious as it was before.

Tried two new things this time: "House Special Sweet and Sour Pork" (at the insistence of the server, who said it "wasn't like at any other Chinese restaurant."). Well, it kinda was. Too sweet for my palate, although the pork was nice and thin and crispy.
Sweet and Sour Pork
Sweet and Sour Pork
Chous_sweetsourpork.jpg (19.9 KiB) Viewed 22034 times
Also had the Dalian Seafood Noodle Soup (Mylifeonvacatio, isn't this what you had before?), and it was delicious...apart from some very rubbery calamari (at least I think that's what it was!) pieces within. The homemade noodles were spectacular.
Dalian Seafood Noodle Soup -- note the white "dotted" pieces in there, looking way too much like one of those rubber fingertip thingies, which I can only assume was calamari.
Dalian Seafood Noodle Soup -- note the white "dotted" pieces in there, looking way too much like one of those rubber fingertip thingies, which I can only assume was calamari.
Chous_soup.jpg (16.32 KiB) Viewed 22034 times
Last minute addition, before we realized we were stuffed to the gills, were Dumplings with Chives, Pork & Shrimp, which were mostly devoured by my son the next day (equally good, though!).

Had the same server as we had on Friday lunch, but service was a little chaotic, probably because it was dinner time and it was way more crowded. Trouble getting refills on our drinks, which kinda sucked. Anyhow, I will be back...although probably not with my family! :roll:
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

BarbaraToombs wrote:Tried two new things this time: "House Special Sweet and Sour Pork" (at the insistence of the server, who said it "wasn't like at any other Chinese restaurant."). Well, it kinda was. Too sweet for my palate, although the pork was nice and thin and crispy.
Now this is really interesting to me. There's a Dongbei variant of sweet sour pork called Guo Bao Rou that I've never had, but always been anxious to try. It's supposed to be plenty sweet, but I believe the sugar is almost caramelized slightly, I think it's usually scented with garlic and ginger, and I think it also omits any tomato or ketchup... which is what this one looks like.

Sorry your return trip involved a less than cooperative crowd :-/
Dominic Armato
User avatar
BarbaraToombs
Posts: 1471
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Chandler/Tempe, Arizona

Post

Yes, Dom...I would agree with all you said: this was kind of carmelized, which was nice and made it crispy, which I liked, and there were hints of garlic and ginger, and it definitely wasn't tomato or ketchup based, thank God. But it was still pretty darn sweet. Now, temper that with some of their hot sauce on the table, and it would probably do it some good, but you know me and heat!!! :)
Pete
Posts: 38
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

Just had a chance to try this place for lunch and it was pretty great. We ended up getting four things. The beef pies were as good as advertised. I was pretty surprised by the volume of juice they released after we cut into them.

As Barbara mentioned the dumplings are all freshly made. We got the pork and napa cabbage. Dom's description of the cabbage and meatball soup seemed to apply here as well. The first one was a bit tame. Add a few drops of soy... "this isn't bad." Try another one... "these are pretty good." Last one... "Wow, this has a great cabbage flavor! Wait, cabbage has flavor?" In retrospect, I'm guessing that the chili oil from some of the other stuff we got was probably just masking the flavor of the first few.

We also got some stir-fried beef with noodles. The beef was a bit crispy around the edges, and the noodles and vegetables tasted a bit like light beef gravy. This was good with the chile oil.

Finally, we ordered a cold dish: spicy pig ear with green onion. The pig ears were sliced thin, marinated in chile oil and Sichuan pepper oil (probably the one Dom linked earlier), and served mixed with green onions and garnished with cilantro. I think this one was my favorite. If you don't mind the heat or the dried pig ear texture I'd recommend giving it a try.
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Site Admin
Posts: 3469
Joined: 9 years ago

Post

Just caught a mention over at Chowhound that they're going to start making Xiao Long Bao next week, and called to confirm. I'm not sure which day, but this is HUGE. I have a hunch these guys can nail them. I'll be calling next week to see what's up. Trying not to get too excited.
Dominic Armato
User avatar
BarbaraToombs
Posts: 1471
Joined: 9 years ago
Location: Chandler/Tempe, Arizona

Post

Ok...explain what that is, Dom...and count me IN!