By now it should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I’m out there checking out Asian restaurants left and right. Sure, I take time to try Peruvian ones, steakhouses, and the occasional burger or shawarma, but dumplings and Asian foods are kind of my passion. Today, a couple of Chinese places that are close to polar opposites. The one thing I’ll give them both is that each offers up rather good Chinese cooking. There, you almost don’t even have to read the rest of the reviews….
Argentines just don’t use apostrophes to indicate possession. Well, neither, really, do any Spanish language countries, it’s not how possession is shown. Sometimes that results in a weird mashup from the English, where they still grab on to the “s” that follows the apostrophe, but just tack it on to the end of the name. And so we have Lis (Li’s) restaurante chino at Rojas 1799 in Villa Crespo, where, presumably, Mr. Li (at least based on the chef popping out of the kitchen repeatedly to instruct the staff in what they should be doing), is behind the scenes, woks a-blazing.
The space is a bit utilitarian, with tile floors, plaster walls and wood wainscoting, cheap cafeteria tables and chairs, and generic “art” on the walls. Service is lackadaisical, with the young woman who was the waitress and the young man who was doing deliveries, rarely moving from the two positions they’re in in the photo, and rarely lifting their gaze from their respective cellphones.
One of the reasons this place was on my list is that several people in social media reviews of the place touted its amazing sheng jian bao, the combo baked and steamed soup dumplings that I mentioned in my recent review of Xiao Long Bao. All of those reviews were a couple of years old, and I noted that while the same name and address, the phone number has changed, they didn’t use to be a place that delivered, older photos look much nicer, and some other menu items seem to not be there. I’m guessing that either the owners decided at some point to revamp the place and do something more casual and with more “popular” dishes, or, the place changed hands, and while the name didn’t change, Mr. Li is not the one running the show back there.
All that leads to, there ain’t no sheng jian bao on the menu. So I ordered up a plate of standard potstickers. Good filling, nicely seasoned, with pork and garlic chives. The dough had a strange texture to it, and I can’t quite put my finger on what was different about it. I almost thought that they were using the little copetín empanada wrappers used for making hors d’oeuvre sized empanadas, and that may actually be it. Good, but not better than that. Hot sauce, and a quite good one, was available, but they charge 20 pesos for it. Though that’s disappointing, I imagine it’s not something they get a lot of requests for, and it was good enough that it was certainly worth spending a dollar on. 85 pesos.
A miscommunication that I decided to let go. I was going for the pollo kung pao, extra spicy, and the waitress put in the order for the pollo kan pun ki, extra spicy. It’s actually a dish I don’t know that I’ve ever ordered, nor even seen on a menu here, at least in a Chinese restaurant. It’s a Korean-Chinese fusion dish (a.k.a. gang poong gi) of double deep-fried chicken in a soy, garlic and chili sauce. It’s actually not bad, and with the extra chili oil that I had from my earlier purchase, as spicy as I’d have liked. It was a whopping portion, and I only made my way through about half of it, and brought the rest home to Henry, who enjoyed it thoroughly. It definitely could have used some sort of vegetable side dish, or rice. 180 pesos (versus the 135 pesos that the kung pao would have been, but, so be it).
I’d happily eat at Lis again, whether Mr. Li is the guy in the kitchen, or no. But hey, bring back the sheng jian bao, and if they’re as good as everyone was saying they were, these days, you’d have foodies trouping their way to the door.
Oh, this place. I have tried to go here three or four times before. Every time I’ve walked into it, I’ve gotten the bum’s rush to leave, the Chinese woman who runs the place giving me a half Chinese, half Spanish explanation of how they’re not really open at that moment. Even when it’s in the middle of their posted hours and even when other people were having lunch there. The “other people”, without exception, always having been Chinese. I began to get the impression that she simply doesn’t want any non-Chinese folk in her restaurant, Royal China, Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 1808, Puerto Madero.
But, I found myself a block away on a recent day and decided to give it one more shot. She wasn’t in evidence at the time, the main dining room was empty. There was a party of about a dozen Chinese men having lunch in their dock-side room, but it seemed to be private and the waitress said I couldn’t sit in there. I stand by my assessment above, as when the same Chinese woman did come into the dining room later, she started yelling at the waitress for having seated me. I will say that it’s a quite pretty, if rather formal feeling room.
The menu is extensive, and a lot of it is only in Chinese, or only has a few words here and there translated into Spanish. But, of course, these days there’s Google’s optical character reader in the Translate app…. In some ways, the menu isn’t that extensive, however, because there are big Xs crossing off easily close to half the items on the menu, worse in the appetizer section, where there are only maybe five or six things actually available out of a couple of dozen.
Strangely, one of those was “pigs’ ears in chili oil”. Not exactly a common one on local menus. And, given that as best I could find, there was no form of dumpling on the menu, I decided to go for them. I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting this to be a cold appetizer, and more so, that it was basically frozen – there’s still ice clinging to some of the bits. I have the feeling they make it in advance, freeze it, and then thinly slice and thaw it to order. The flavor was okay, but it’s not something I’d order again, and it’s a dish I normally like. 98 pesos.
Turning to the chicken section, lo and behold, they had a version of Spicy Szechuan Peppercorn Chicken – in this case, the hua jiao ji style, with bell peppers, garlic, and ginger. It’s a decent sized portion. It could have been spicier, especially as I’d asked for it to be. Heavy on the garlic and ginger – in fact, whole garlic cloves and similar sized planks of ginger, and just a small amount of chili and a hint of szechuan peppercorns. It was good, but no more than that. It took three requests to get a bowl of white rice to accompany it. 328 pesos, plus 60 for rice….
…Well, maybe not. You may find, should you inexplicably venture to Royal China after reading this review, that it’s gone up. When my bill arrived, it was a whopping 647 pesos, for two plates, rice, and a water. That seemed rather high, as I was expecting something closer to 500, and I noted that the chicken was charged at 398 pesos – I was pretty sure I remembered 328 and asked to see the menu again. And sure enough, it was 328. And the 98 peso appetizer had been charged at 118, and the rice and water had been raised from their respective 60 and 50 pesos to fill in the gap. All by roughly 20%. I pointed this out to the waitress, who went to the woman I mentioned above – they had some sort of hand-waving discussion, and then my waitress returned to say that “the prices on the menu aren’t the current prices, they’ve all been raised”.
I declined to pay it, saying I’d probably never have stayed and ordered food if I’d seen prices that high. She shrugged and went back to the woman. I decided to follow. There ensued an argument, with the woman claiming she had the right to raise her prices whenever she wanted and I just had to pay it. I refused and gave her the amount in total that it should have been, 536 pesos. She actually started hissing at me and swinging her arms in cat claw swipes at me – just totally bizarre, and then finally just picked up the money, continuing hissing and cursing as she did it and as I slipped the waitress a tip for her efforts, and walked out, never to return, not that it’s likely they’d let me in again. The food’s not good enough to justify putting up with the attitude. Actually, no food would be.
Note: although not commonplace, this isn’t the first time stuff like this has happened here in BA.
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