In our fast-globalizing world, rarely does ethnic food - especially cuisine as familiar as Chinese - impart entirely unfamiliar taste sensations. But I discovered various new taste buds at Zoe’s Gourmet Chinese Cuisine in Somerville.
Not all these gustatory revelations were to my liking: Sometimes it takes a while to warm up to new flavors. But it’s a testament to the food’s authenticity that this was dramatically unlike most Chinese-American fare I’ve had before, much more Chinese than American.
Even familiar dishes veer into new territory here. Take the dumplings, a Chinese standby. Zoe’s pork-filled steamed spicy Sichuan dumplings ($5.75) were fairly unremarkable, and at first taste even a little bland. But drizzled with a spicy/salty oil and some walnuts, these dumplings pack a bit of crunch and a bit of punch. Their heat lingers on the tongue.
The dan dan noodles with minced pork vinaigrette ($5) sneak up in similar fashion, although I found myself wishing for a bit more of the sinus-clearing pork and vinaigrette to liven up the otherwise unremarkable noodles.
Among the entrees, the eggplant with garlic sauce ($9) was a delicious dish that I could eat in large quantities. While not as garlicky as the name might suggest, the sweet-and-sour sauce plays up the eggplant’s meatiness. In addition to lavender-colored Japanese eggplant, this tasty dish also included bamboo shoots, green peppers, and water chestnuts.
The Sichuan-style and Hunan-style sections of the menu are where the heat really picks up. My tolerance for spiciness is pretty solid (jalapenos don’t faze me), but I found some of these dishes close to overpowering.
The so-called dry diced chicken with hot chilies ($11.50) was a spicy favorite. The minced and fried chicken was spiked with entire red chili peppers and hunks of hot green peppers. While one has to eat this dish judiciously (to avoid ingesting a mouthful of hot peppers rather than chicken), it’s clearly Sichuan comfort food, combining the best of salty and spicy.
While neither tofu nor celery is notably flavorful on its own, the spicy smoked tofu with celery ($11) was off-the-charts hot. (It’s worth noting that on Zoe’s 0-to-2-chilis scale of heat, this dish scored only one chili.) While I enjoyed the flavor, I could only eat half the portion, and regretted it afterward.
The lamb with cumin and spicy sauce ($14) is an unusual and earthy hybrid of Chinese and Middle Eastern fare, but one that I generally found to be a miss.
The shredded lamb was curiously tough and dry, and the coarse spices, including a generous dusting of whole cumin seeds, were a bit much.
The ma po tofu ($9 - which includes silken tofu and minced pork - was a generous portion and full of novel flavors. But I found the dish too gelatinous. It seems like it should be served with some rice or noodles to soak up all that oily liquid. (Zoe’s charges $1.50 and $1.75, respectively, for servings of white or brown rice.)
For those who aren’t seeking a side of spicy adventure with their Chinese dinner, the ample menu includes many Americanized options.
The pu pu platter for two ($15), happy family ($13), and sliced chicken with asparagus ($10) were all fine, but nothing special. Tellingly, Chinese patrons predominated in Zoe’s dining room - and they weren’t opting for pu pu platters.
While the space is perfectly comfortable and pleasant, Zoe’s seems to do more take-out than dine-in business. Perhaps this is why the in-house service was a bit disjointed, with entrees arriving mere moments after the appetizers.