I still vividly remember the excitement of my first taste of Sichuan cuisine. We had to travel to New York City, San Francisco or Chicago to get such goodies back in the late ‘70s, but Sichuan, aka Szechwan, fare did get to Louisville finally, and for a decade or two, these spicy regional cuisines were among the city’s most popular dining options.
Our tastes and our options have since grown diverse, and now that there’s a quick-service Chinese restaurant in just about every shopping center in town, General Tso’s chicken is just another ho-hum option.
But a couple of destination Chinese eateries remain, and one of the top spots, Jasmine Chinese Cuisine in Middletown, has just doubled down. Really doubled: Now there are two Jasmines, with the arrival of the same owners’ Jasmine Asian Bistro in a shopping center along Lime Kiln Lane in the Holiday Manor neighborhood.
It’s an attractive room: wall-size glass windows are along two walls, a short sushi bar is lined with a half-dozen, tall, leopard-print stools, and a row of booths is separated by stone arches. In a variation on the usual Chinese restaurant Great Wall paintings and bas-relief dragons, a large mural over a banquette at the back of the room is a stylish mix of traditional Chinese drawing and attractive street art. Shiny, wood-look tables are set with flatware rolled in paper napkins; chopsticks are available only on request.
As with its original East End operation, Jasmine Bistro’s menu covers a broad range of standard Chinese-American dishes including sweet and sour chicken, $9, and pepper steak, $12, eight kinds of fried rice from $8 to $11 and less-familiar authentic dishes such as hong shao rou, Shanghai-style braised pork belly, $12 and seafood fish belly soup, $8. All dishes are listed in both English and Chinese and entrée prices are contained within the range of $8 to $15.
Eight varieties of sushi rolls range from $5 (for the familiar California roll) to $13 (for several fancy options including the White Castle roll, which, happily, is not composed of deconstructed sliders but honors the beloved, soaring, white samurai castle in Himeji, Japan).
An extensive lunch menu includes 30 dishes, all served with white or fried rice and choice of egg drop, hot-and-sour or wonton soup, from $6.99 to $8.99.
We stopped in at lunchtime but chose from the dinner menu and were happy with everything we tried, starting with steaming, strong, pale-green jasmine tea ($2 for a full pot).
A Wonderland Roll ($13), an eel-based roll, served as an appetizer, was large and well-made, tightly wrapped and firm and sliced into eight, two-bite pieces. It was made in the inside-out style with sticky white rice both within and on the surface of a black nori seaweed cylinder. The inside of the roll was stuffed with fresh, clean-tasting eel, cooked, not raw (it’s a fish, not a snake — get over it). The roll was topped with thick slices of avocado, drizzled with sweet, brown eel sauce and topped with tiny, sparkly, clear fish roe that popped in your mouth.
Another good appetizer, onion cake ($3.50) was simple but so appetizing that we devoured it quickly. Grated white onion and sliced green onion had been coated with a light, rice-flour batter, made into a thin pancake, fried crisp and brown and cut into eight wedges.
Ma po tofu ($9) is one of my favorite Sichuanese dishes. It’s often made with ground pork, but Jasmine lists it on its eight-item vegetarian menu. Even without meat, its generous portion of three-quarter-inch cubes of soft, creamy, silken tofu provides an ample supply of protein. The tofu is braised in a fiery, reddish-orange sauce of chili oil sautéed with red pepper flakes, Sichuan pepper and tiny bits of green onion and green pepper that coat the tofu cubes with deliciously palate-numbing heat.
Cumin beef ($13.99 at dinner and $7.99 for a lunch portion) is another favorite. Made with beef or lamb, it’s a specialty of the Uyghur community in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang region. A lunch order was still a very generous portion, plated atop tiny, baby bok choy cabbages and accompanied with a mound of good fried rice. The beef had been cut in thin strips, coated with spicy red pepper, fried crisp, mixed with green onion slices and a little cilantro and served dry with no additional sauce.
The fried rice was subtle and delicate, lightly fried but still pale in color, studded with tiny bits of scrambled egg and cabbage.
My fortune cookie was empty, which seemed so existential that I declined a replacement. It was crunchy and good.
Lunch for two was $37.62, plus an $8 tip. •