Lots of people cannot abide the thought of riding a modern roller coaster. They see the corkscrews and loop-de-loops and screams and know immediately the experience could never bring them happiness. Trying to talk them into boarding by saying "It's nothing to be afraid of" is pointless and patronizing.
So I will not try to convince those scared of unfamiliar ingredients to walk on the wild side at 1280 China Taste. This authentic Chinese specialist is not trafficking in American Chinese cuisine, so there’s no General Tso's chicken or fortune cookies.
Like most amusement parks, it's home to some placid rides, the merry-go-rounds of the menu. But the most remarkable dishes the night I visited delivered thrills and chills capable of taking the adventurous to the edge, and ushering them out the door well-fed.
People who do not appreciate surprises can still dine well here. The small 40-seat room, which replaced 80 China Cafe in a retail-hotel plaza on Sweet Home Road, offers crowd-pleasers across the spectrum.
Plenty of authentic Chinese dishes aren't scary in the least. Try the dumplings, which come 20 to an order. The lamb ($9.99) and pork sanxian ($8.99), with mushrooms, greens and shrimp along with pork, were juicy and flavorful. Three vegetable dumplings ($8.99) were filled with fluffy scrambled egg flavored with shrimp and Chinese chives. A minor discovery, light and mild, they were my favorite.
"Mouth-watering chicken" ($8.99) lives up to its name. It’s poached chicken with a marvelous dip of soy, sesame, chile oil and more. Chicken dipping was just the beginning, with dumplings next, while I surveyed the table for other dip candidates. The chicken is bone-in, hacked with a cleaver, leaving bone fragments, so you'll want to eat carefully. But that dip made me want to eat slower anyway.
Crisp fried pork ($8.99) was sliced pork, battered and fried to a chewy-crunchy finish in garlicky-sweet sauce with chiles and carrots. Minced pork with preserved cabbage ($9.99) prompted comfort-food comparisons to German pork with sauerkraut. It was sliced pork belly, braised spoon-tender, on a bed of tangy cabbage, and it would have been as home on spaetzle as it was on rice.
Home-style tofu ($8.99) is dish that appears on many Chinese menus, and this was better than most. Firm tofu was sliced and fried, giving it a meatier texture, then served in a piquant brown sauce with wood-ear mushrooms, onions and green peppers.
Eggplant with garlic sauce ($8.99) was also a superior version, the eggplant firmed up with a toss in starch before being fried, then finished much like the home-style tofu.
So fans of “regular” Chinese can be happy here, unless General Tso is their one true love. Seekers of authentic Chinese sensations, and adventurous eaters, should make it a destination.
As I read through the menu I was reminded what's edgy for most Americans is tame as mashed potatoes to Chinese folks. So here's sautéed pig's kidney ($8.99), and aromatic pig’s feet ($7.99) and jellyfish with vinegar ($13.99).
Sea cucumber has been prized in Asia for thousands of years. I finally got to eat it here, stir-fried and surrounded with baby bok choy. It’s $28.99, by far the most expensive dish on the menu.
Bites had a firm yet wiggly texture and a smoky aroma from wok-frying that first reminded me of the fat of a huge untrimmed pork chop properly cooked, but lighter, not greasy. Not slimy, either. Then it dissolved with a bite, leaving a faint whisper of sea.
A not-so-subtle delight followed in the duck’s blood, beef and tripe in spicy soup ($9.99). It was a small vat of brick-colored broth crowded with tender-but-toothsome shredded tripe, green bok choy, sliced Spamlike luncheon meat, and purplish slabs of congealed duck’s blood, which tasted like cheese made with liver. The powerful chile-laden broth could have made anything interesting, but these ingredients sure helped.
Lamb in hot chile oil ($13.99) was even more powerful, even though it was full of things I regularly eat. Cabbage, mushrooms and lots of thin-sliced lamb were simmered in a sauce with multiple chile inputs including handfuls of dried fried chiles, and topped with a pile of fried garlic. We dredged out the solids onto rice and marveled at the depth of flavor.
Pork intestines with hot pepper ($9.99) was a big plate of chitterlings, braised and wokked until tender and porky with a moderate air of organ-meat funk. It wasn’t a dish I’d eat a lot of, but it wasn’t that offal.
There's no alcohol, and service was not always attentive. But dishes rocketed out of the kitchen, making it an option for a quick bite. Customers have also been given a 10 percent discount for paying cash.
If you’re not a risk-taker, use my notes above to order safely. If you want to step out a little, order one you don’t know. What’s behind door No. 44, fried egg with chopped Chinese toon leaves? (Toon is a tree leaf that tastes sort of like onions.)
Maybe it’s like something you’ve had before. Maybe not. Either way, you should go home content, debating which rides to tackle next time.
1280 China Taste – 8 plates (out of 10)
Authentic Chinese that satisfies both unadventurous and risk-takers.
1280 Sweet Home Road, No. 102, Amherst (568-0080)
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 11 a.n.-10 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: Appetizers, $5.99-$13.99; dishes, $7.99-$28.99.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free: Not on menu, but can request steamed dishes.