I vividly recall how my first Northern Chinese restaurant experience shook me out of many assumptions about Chinese cuisine. I was surprised to discover lamb dishes on the menu as well as the liberal use of oil, vinegar, and garlic. Also, instead of rice, there was an impressive variety of noodles, dumplings, and pancakes. Considering the fact that wheat grows better in northern China than rice, this makes a lot of sense. It’s a handy reminder, in this age of access to all ingredients all the time, that regional cuisines are deeply rooted in both culture and geography.
We don’t have many opportunities to appreciate the vast regional differences within Chinese cuisine here in Ottawa, which is why I was delighted to discover a relatively new family-run Northern Chinese restaurant in the same strip mall as two other foodie gems — an Eastern European deli and a favourite Thai restaurant — tucked behind the Carling Animal Hospital. I dropped by for lunch recently and used my usual “research method” (eavesdropping on customers who look like they know what to order) and hit upon a couple of unique and delicious dishes.
First came the homemade noodles. The sight of these two words together makes my heart flutter. And these were unlike any noodles I had ever seen or tasted. When the steaming bowl of thick gorgeous plump ribbons arrived, I was instructed to toss them in the sauce hidden at the bottom of the bowl — it was the classic trio of hot chili oil, vinegar, and enough fresh chopped garlic (visible chunks!) to ward off colds and flus for weeks (months?) to come. For all of its pungency, the overall effect was a surprisingly mellow. After several bites, the dish took on a comforting, almost bland flavour — in a good way. This is one belly-warming, soul-satisfying winter-blues-fighting dish.
Next came the Chinese pork hamburger. What – you’ve never had a Chinese hamburger? Nor had I. I was imagining it might be one of those fluffy sweet Chinese steamed buns but our helpful server described it as a homemade pancake stuffed with chopped pork. How bad can that be?
According to one random Internet source, this burger has a 2,000 year old history. (“It was the snack of choice for the soldiers who defended Xian City in the Shanxi Province…The soldiers were fond of the burgers because, like today’s burgers, they were filling and traveled well.”) Apparently it remains a local favourite to this day and I can see why. It’s akin to a crusty flat English muffin, sliced and spread with a modest layer of tender juicy fall-apart pork (judging by the texture and aromatic porkiness, I’m guessing it might be slow-cooked shoulder), moistened with its own succulent fatty juices, and adorned with nothing but a sprig of coriander.
After one bite I looked around to see if I had miraculously discovered a secret dish but the joke was on me. These crunchy porky delights were on every table in the place.
Cost: Chinese hamburgers $4.99 each; handmade noodles $6.50; generous lunch specials from $7.50 served with soup, rice, and springroll.
Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Rice Pea Chinese Restaurant, 2280 Carling Ave., 613-828-8988.