One of the salient pleasures of exploring cuisine is the sensation of travel it affords.
My budget may not allow for a deluxe nine-day cruise of the Far East, but I can walk into any of the restaurants around the University at Buffalo’s Amherst campus focused on Chinese nationals and find a cheap ticket out of my surroundings.
Looking at a plate full of alien sustenance is a glimpse into the place where that plate looks normal, at least in my head. The best part is when a dish moves me to marvel again at the genius of cooks who found new ways to satisfy the ancient hungers.
Such was the place I found myself recently, at Miss Hot Café, a Chinese restaurant in Amherst that offers both American and “traditional” Chinese. There I encountered a dish whose main ingredients were pickles, fish and doughnuts.
How could that be delicious? Well guess what: free your mind, and your belly will follow.
The first thing I should make clear about sour cabbage fish with long doughnut ($16.95) is that the doughnuts are savory, not sweet. They’re plain fried crullers the size of Olive Garden breadsticks, but crunchy.
The dish arrived ringed with them, to used for mopping up gravy, much like a scarpetta of bread. In this case, the gravy was a subtle white sauce, savory with garlic and ginger, over tilapia fillets. Bracing pickled mustard greens performed a similar role to the pickles in tartar sauce – a tang to break up the rich blandness.
There’s lots of discoveries worth making in the thick Miss Hot Café menu. The familiar American Chinese menu has all the pork fried rice ($12.95) and sweet and sour chicken ($13.95) that you want.
I would skip the first six pages to get to the Chinese Chinese.
Consider some of the cold appetizers. Cold spicy chopped chicken ($8.95) was poached bone-in chicken hacked into slices, and presented in chile oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, cilantro and garlic, with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds for nutty crunch.
Ox tongue and tripe with spicy pepper sauce ($9.95), and a similar dish of beef tendon ($8.95) offered poached meat sliced paper-thin and marinated in chile oil, garlic, scallions and more. A dusting of faintly tongue-deadening Sichuan peppercorn, combined with the moderate chile fire, created the numbing-spicy effect the Chinese call ma-la.
Marinated gluten ($9.95) is a pile of brown nubs and growths that looks like something the protagonist eats to survive in a post-armageddon science-fiction thriller. It’s actually an amiable multitextured combination of peanuts, bamboo shoots, two kinds of mushrooms and chewy gluten cubes that soak up the sweet soy sauce like syrup into pancakes.
Seaweed salad ($6.95) offered lettuce-of-the-waves matchsticked and marinated in sweet-tangy sauce redolent of sesame oil. A tiny bunny made from a grape tomato looked like it was lounging on a sesame-seed-sprinkled seaweed lawn.
Other vegetables that found favor included pea shoots with garlic ($13.95), like sautéed spinach with more texture. Lotus paradise ($13.95) showcased honeycomb-like slices of lotus root, which has a texture between potato and water chestnut, stir-fried in a smoky wok with wood ear fungus, white mushroom, bamboo shoots, and celery.
Not everything shone. A scallion pancake ($2.95) was limp and dispirited. Ma po tofu ($12.95), the dish of cubed tofu and ground pork in a sauce of bean paste and chile oil, was short on its characteristic zip.
That was not the case with spicy hot barbecued fish ($22.95). A whole fish was partly deboned, crusted with fermented black beans, garlic, sesame, coriander seeds, Sichuan peppercorn and more, then deep-fried. Presented under a thicket of chopped fresh chiles, sautéed onions and cilantro, this was a fiercely spicy dish whose flavors nonetheless drew diners back to flirt with pain.
Crispy lamb with chili ($18.95) was a hit all around. Lamb was stir-fried with lots of cumin, salt, chiles, cilantro and garlic, then piled in the middle of a platter surrounded by Pringles-style potato chips. The server brought us more chips when we ran out.
Spicy devil rays ($19.95) arrived under a mulch of chopped chiles and scallions. Rays, a relative of skate, had more texture than fish filets but subtler nuances were blanked out by aggressive spicing.
Millennium steak ($19.95) was a beef stunner, nuggets of tender beef in a molasses dark soy glaze just short of burnt sugar and alive with black pepper. The sauce was compelling enough that not a single bite of accompanying onion or bell pepper was left behind.
Among the solar system of Chinese restaurants drawn by the gravitational pull of the University at Buffalo’s Amherst campus, Miss Hot Café stands out for the snazzy plate architecture and range of regional specialties.
Maybe it’s time to give the trio of fish, pickles and doughnuts a chance? Don’t worry: If it piques your taste for the sweeter kinds, Paula’s Donuts is just down the street.
Miss Hot Café – 8 plates (out of 10)
3311 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 832-3188.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
Prices: appetizers, $3 to $14; entrees, $6.95 to $24.95.
Atmosphere: quiet as a library.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: not specifically.