The blossoming of authentic Chinese restaurants near the University at Buffalo’s Amherst campus has created a Chinatown’s worth of places. Since 2010, Peking Quick One, Miss Hot Café, Wok & Roll and China Star opened, each offering dishes previously found no closer than Toronto. In July, 80 China Café joined them. Its address, in a new Sweet Home Road development, is the closest to campus. It’s a good place to consider how far eating opportunities for area Chinese cuisine fans have come in the last four years.
The restaurant is small, with 26 seats divided between a long main table, smaller tables and high tables with backed stools. It was well lit and quiet during our visit. The server got us water and let us consider the menu.
Five years ago, it would have been a contender for the most exotic Chinese menu in town. The first dish is ox tongue and tripe with chili sauce, a spicy cold appetizer ($7.25). Miss Hot Café has a good version of this Sichuan classic, but on this night I had to save my spiciness allotment for other dishes. Sichuan appetizers included cucumbers ($4.95) and two types of spicy Sichuan noodles, and tripe again, this time shredded with Sichuan pepper ($7.25).
For a first-time dip into Sichuan cuisine, consider starting with the meat dumplings in spicy sauce appetizer ($4.95, pictured as featured photo). It’s pork-stuffed wontons in a beguiling chile vinaigrette, a crimson sauce that teases with sour, sweet, spicy and rich notes. Sichuan doesn’t have to hurt; this is a walk on the mild side.
The 80-dish menu includes classics of regional Chinese cuisine spanning the vast nation. From Taiwan, there’s San Bei chicken ($12.95), a braised dish also known as “three cups” chicken, for its main braising ingredients of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, plus loads of garlic and ginger. From the western province of Xinjiang comes chopped chicken with Xinjiang flavor ($19.95), which got its start as a Chinese Muslim specialty.
Lest the exotic stuff scare you off, there’s also a list of “American dishes,” 30 of the usual plates, like sweet and sour chicken, lo mein and beef with broccoli. Those come with white or fried rice, and soup, for $6.75 at lunch, and $8.75 for dinner. The fried rice choices include bacon fried rice, which was new to me.
We started with two simple vegetable dishes, which were among the table’s favorites. The cucumber appetizer was gently pickled slices of peeled, seeded cucumbers marinated with a whack of fresh garlic. It was a refreshing, crunchy dish that made a fine cooling companion to some of the spicier dishes that followed. Spinach with ginger sauce ($7.95) was a heap of tender wilted dark green leaves accented with gingery savor.
Scrambled eggs with leeks ($7.95) could have turned up on the breakfast menu at any diner, except for a couple of notable differences. The scallion-like onion greens were cut an inch long, and they were plentiful, used more as a green vegetable than flavoring. Then there was the extra hit of umami in the soft-scrambled egg mixture, from a shot of chicken stock or similar seasoning.
“Dry braised” lamb ($15.95) arrived next. (The dish also comes in chicken, beef, fish and shrimp.) It was an intensely flavored pan of tender sliced lamb, onion, celery, green bell pepper and leeks, flavored with cilantro, slices of ginger, dried red chiles and Sichuan pepper.
It’s worth pointing out that Chinese diners eat fireworks-on-a-plate dishes like this with heaps of steamed rice. The dish is flavoring for rice, like gravy is for mashed potatoes.
One guest who never experienced Sichuan pepper before said, “What the [heck].” It’s a common reaction. Sichuan pepper isn’t spicy like black pepper or chili peppers. It produces a faintly numbing feeling, a hum on your tongue, that Chinese cooks use to set the stage for spicy or highly flavored food.
Sichuan pepper also was in a dish that was my walk on the wild side, spicy and crispy pork intestine ($12.95). I’ve tried China Star’s version, and enjoyed the pork-rind-like texture, backed up with a ferocious tangle of dried red chiles and Sichuan peppercorn. (Remember: white rice.) At 80 China Café, the intestines were sliced a little thicker before being deep-fried and then stir-fried, resulting in crunchy-then-chewy pieces with more pork flavor. Everyone tried a piece, which I thought was brave. At least I didn’t ask them to try the sautéed pork kidney with garlic sauce ($11.95).
Clams with ginger and onion ($12.95) had middleneck clams in the shell, tender and fragrant with aromatics yet also bore a hint of smoke from wok-firing. The seafood was fresh, the flavoring mild.
Another homey hit was the pork meatballs ($11.95). Four tennis-ball-sized spheres arrived in gently sweet and salty brown sauce and a few spinach leaves, topped with a handful of chopped cilantro. The tender meat reminded me favorably of meatloaf and gravy, except lighter.
Our last dish was the Xinjiang flavor chicken, a resonantly flavorful chicken and potato stew. It was hunks of dark-meat chicken stewed with potatoes, green bell pepper and onions in an almost-Indian gravy with cumin seed and vinegar. The chicken was somewhat off-putting because it was hacked-up legs, bone-in, skin on, requiring careful nibbling if you wanted to eat it without making a scene. Chinese people I’ve eaten with could do this with ease, but I wasn’t as adept. The potatoes were boneless, though, and I would have happily eaten the dish without chicken at all, because the sauce was that interesting.
While the menu is not marked with gluten-free dishes, owner Kun Huang said servers can tell diners about gluten-free choices at tableside.
The members of the Amherst Chinese brigade each have strengths and weaknesses. The menu at 80 China Café isn’t as broad as Miss Hot Café’s. Its Sichuan offerings aren’t as finely wrought as China Star’s, it lacks Wok & Roll’s seven-day dim sum lineup, and it’s not as budget-friendly as Peking Quick One.
That said, 80 China Café serves more authentic Chinese food than anything I’ve found in the Buffalo city limits. It is a welcome addition to the Amherst lineup, serving accessible, authentic Chinese food from simple to complex, at reasonable prices.
80 China Cafe
7 plates (out of 10)
Small Sweet Home space joins authentic Chinese lineup in Amherst.
WHERE: 1280 Sweet Home Road, Suite 102, Amherst (568-0080)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $1.75-$7.95; soup and noodles, $4.95-$9.25; entrees, $7.95-$19.95.
PARKING: Lot. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.