Chinese food in Chile varies widely from downright awful to quite good. China Village is among the very best.
By Margaret Snook, December 21, 2009
Let’s face it, going out for Chinese is the most fun in a group of say 8 people, so you get to order about 6 great dishes and all get to try everything. But there are times when those other 6 people are nowhere to be found and we end up with “ganas” for Chinese and the two of us go on our own. But the thing is, he’s a vegetarian and she (that would be me) is a carnivore. So… 2 dishes, skip the apps. He shares, but snubs her meat-infested fare… she wins…
There are hundreds–perhaps thousands–of Chinese restaurants in Chile, and the more “humilde” the neighborhood, the more there are. It makes sense. Since the dishes are served family style and you don’t need to order something for everyone, a crowd can eat cheap.
China Village in La Reina is our favorite, in large part because it’s closest to the Chinese I know from home. I was appalled the first time I went to a Chilean-Chinese restaurant in the early 1990s and every dish we ordered was the same color brown. Yuck. No crisp and colorful vegetables, no bursts of flavor, just overcooked, mushy gook. My husband couldn’t understand what I was complaining about until he went to Chinatown in New York… Ahhh! That was an eyeopener!
There are plenty of anthropological studies about the ways that Chinese food adapts to local cultures (see, for example, The Globalisation of Chinese Food, by David Wu), and although we think we know what it is, what we find is a local interpretation based on available ingredients and tastes and foodways that are acceptable in the new cultural context.
China Village has the most varied menu of any I’ve seen in Chile. Hot and sour soup is on the list (and delicious), for example, although no Kung Pao Chicken (Schezuan) or General Tso’s Chicken (that’s a North American dish anyway) or Moo Shu Pork (northern China), but there is still plenty that breaks away from the typical “Mongolian beef, chicken, pork” and Chop Suey standards found in Chile. Call ahead and you can order Peking duck with the works. (If anyone knows where to find Schezuan in Chile, please let the rest of us know!)
We got there fairly late, about 10:30, and the place was packed. Within minutes our waitress approached us (the daughter of the Chinese chef/owner Feng Shen Pan, I believe) and we were immediately impressed by her friendly, professional, and very helpful manner. Service is often an issue here in Chile, and many places could learn a thing or two from her.
We asked for a pisco sour “seco” (that’s dry, and I always add “not sweet” because many places confuse dry with strong). We got strong and sweet, made with powdered sugar, which I always find has an unpleasant bitter aftertaste (sugar in Chile is another topic altogether. For now let’s just say that not all sugar is created equal).
The vegetarian in my life ordered the spectacular “berenjena con jengibre” (eggplant with ginger) that comes ablaze in aluminum foil. It makes quite a sight and of course, all heads turned to our table, though no one dared to ask… The dish is truly delicious, the eggplant is tender but not mushy, the ginger is subtle, and the flavors rich and slightly smoky.
I ordered the house special Schezuan-style beef dish. The menu suggested asking for it served spicy, which I did, but alas… it was not to be. It was rich and flavorful, though nary a pinch of ají (chili, pronounced ah-HEE) to be found, and the nearly raw onions were a bit overpowering for my taste and got pushed aside. White rice for me; “chaufan” (fried) for him. He raved at all the bits and pieces of vegetables and egg, and “look! the grains are nice separated, just the way I like it.” Never been one of my favorites. Chileans love rice with “stuff” in it (carrots, peppers, etc); I prefer my rice stuffless, and I want my Chinese rice to stick together enough that I can eat it with chopsticks.
We ordered a half bottle of Casillero de Diablo Cabernet, reasonably well served by another very “canchera” (adept and professional) waitress, although even though I’m the one who ordered the wine, she automatically addressed the service show to my husband. (As a sommelier, I’m a stickler for service issues).
The place itself is agreeable enough. It certainly isn’t the gaudy bright red and dragon decor so often found in Chile’s Chinese restaurants, but don’t expect a cozy romantic setting either. It’s bright and busy, and usually packed, especially weekends, but it’s clean and pleasant.
The prices are reasonable. We chose two of the more expensive dishes on the menu and the bill was still only about $20,000 before tip.
There are two locations:
La Reina: Salvador Izquierdo 1757 Phone: 277-7499
Mauqehue: Manquehue Sur 1022 Phone: 229-0362