Few streets in the Bay Area can match the quaint charm of Albany’s Solano Avenue, the heart of which occupies about two dozen blocks between San Pablo Avenue to the west and The Alameda (an odd street name, for sure) to the east. To its credit, this crosswalk-laden stretch of Solano Avenue features very few franchises or chain stores, yet it does boast plenty of neighborhood restaurants and shops, perhaps none more noteworthy than China Village.
Most of the time, I’ll include a visit to China Village whenever I’m catching a flick at the Albany Twin (or perhaps at the Oaks Theatre to the east [RIP]; both movie-houses are located on Solano Avenue, although at opposite ends of the road). This week, I stopped by the Twin to watch “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” which actually presents a fitting-yet-tenuous theme for a spicy Szechuan lunch, now that I think about it.
The lunch special at China Village is relatively typical, considering that it does include hot and sour soup, one fried egg roll, and a fortune cookie. Although these elements (especially the fortune cookie) tend to reflect an American influence, the key at China Village is to order the house specialties, such as the delicious spicy flounder pictured above. To my tastes, this flounder represents the hallmark of Szechuan cuisine, providing a pungent balance of garlic alongside the smoldering heat of chili sauce. It’s an amazingly bold dish, with great flavors and wonderful execution. Best of all, the bill was only $7.65 plus tip.
The West Style Spicy Fish Fillet is known as one of China Village’s defining dishes, and for good reason. First of all, the soup delivers an addictive burn that ranks as one of the spiciest items on the entire menu. Second of all, the West Style Spicy Fish features a unique element of table-side service, which brings considerable flair to the dish: The soup arrives to the table in a large covered bowl, where the lid is removed to reveal dozens of whole dried chili peppers floating atop the soup’s steamy surface. With a ladle, the server deftly skims and discards this layer of dried chili peppers, straining any excess broth back into the bowl for maximum infusion.
Once most of the peppers have been removed with the ladle, any rogue chili peppers are quickly plucked from the soup with chopsticks, until only small bits of pepper remain . Once this short ceremony is complete, the first individual serving of the soup is also plated table-side (as pictured above), providing guests with a quick demo of how to best progress with the meal. From there, however, you’ll be on your own. If you can handle the slow burn, you’ll be fine.