Santon (山東) Restaurant features homestyle Chinese cooking and is rather hidden from Yokohama Chukagai's bustling main street. And might as well it should stay hidden, because sadly we won't be going back there again. Ever. Erhh...let's see, out of the 4 dishes hubby and I ordered, 1 had no taste, 2 had the same taste, and the third was just a sauteed green leafy vegetable dish and to me, it didn't count because if a so-esteemed "Chinese" restaurant can't even sauteed green leafy vegetables right, well, shoot me now.
Apparently the place was "famous" for boiled dumplings, and hubby loves boiled dumplings and has been wanting to go try it out. The boiled dumplings was the first thing we ordered too, and it came out steaming hot, freshly fished from the boiling water in which it was cooked. The waitress then brought us a far of what looks like flavored sate (aka shacha) sauce (not the same as the peanut-based Southeast Asian satay), which we happily doused our dumplings with because we love sate! It's savory, spicy, with briny flavor mixed in, what's not to love?
Big mistake. One bite into our dumpling with "sate" and hubby and I looked at each other funny. Was that [a boat load of] coconut? Taking a better look at the thick grainy stuff in the "sate" sauce, we were befuddled to discover it was entirely shredded dried coconut along with some sprinkle of chili O_o
Arh? Sure, some common ready made canned/bottled brands in Taiwan use coconut powder in their sate sauce, but all we tasted in our sauce was coconut! We couldn't even taste the garlic or the chili, because coconut was so overwhelming. Imagine the ingredients for coconut macaroons, then mix in some soy sauce and chili. What, yuck? Yeah, yuck was our reaction too. It was as if the chef was daintily sprinkling his beloved sate with coconut when some brute walked by and briskly bumped his elbow, causing him to dump the entire freakin' bucket of shredded dried coconut in. We ended up politely asked the waitress for some soy sauce and chili oil to finish the rest of our dumplings...
Then we spotted 辣子雞 (spicy diced chicken) on the menu and ordered it in a snap. We thought, no way, we hadn't seen Lazi Ji anywhere in the Chinese restaurant menus here in Japan! So I totally got ahead of myself, drooling at the thought of the Chongqing/Sichuan version with bite sized chicken pieces perfectly crispy, salty, and fiery, piled up into a mountain among the mix of whole dried chili peppers, chopped scallions, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds, etc. The picture below is from Szechuan House (川妹子), hands down the best Sichuan restaurant I've ever eaten at. If you truly want to see what authentic food Sichuan food is all about, this is the place to find out. The dish in the far back is 水煮牛, literally Water Boiled Beef, but is actually a stew-like sauce with beef that will melt in your mouth before you breath out fire. On the left is Sichuan dumplings, and on the right is 干煸四季豆 (sauteed string beans with pickled radish). And the second picture is super spicy pickled broccoli stem served the moment you sit down. The Sichuan food at Szechuan House is Spicy with a bolded capital S (you've been warned!) but I love the place and the food to death!
...And thus I nearly died of a broken heart when we got this pathetic looking dish with chicken and limp overcooked green bell peppers and, well, that's it. Nothing else, not even scallions. We were underwhelmed and unimpressed just looking at the dish, but hey, we were willing to give it a try. Other than the fact that we were already there, looking at the [sad] dish, we remembered making the same error of assumption before. We had ordered what we thought was Chongqing Lazi Ji at a run of the mill American-Chinese restaurant with a run of the mill name, Golden Lotus, and it too came out with [not-overcooked] bell peppers, onions, and carrots. And yet it still got us to happily choke it down because it didn't taste so bad, just not what we had expected. Hell, the vast majority of the dishes at Golden Lotus were actually pretty tasty (trust me, we'd had them all -.-'), despite being catered to American taste. Who says American-Chinese food has to taste like sh*t? Not every restaurant has the same take on "Lazi Ji," right? Yeah well, Santon's Lazi Ji tasted like...umm...erhh...hmm...it didn't taste like anything. They seasoned it with just soy sauce, and even then, the flavor of that soy sauce was not there anymore. Talking about let down.
By this time I was a bit frustrated, and for our third dish I decided, hell, let's see what their Shacha Beef (沙茶牛肉) looks like. I was sincerely hoping to be wrong, but unfortunately, I was right: the dish came out completely covered in, you guessed it, dried shredded coconut. Wow. Just wow. It was clear as crystal to us at this moment that we had came to the place at the very wrong time - it was doh-the-coconut-is-expiring(expired?)-day and they had decided to use as much of it as possible. While I applaud their effort of not wanting to waste food ingredients (it's expensive too, that's why!), this was callously criminal use of coconut. Hubby and I took one bite and we just couldn't eat anymore, so we asked to wrap everything up to go. When the bill came at 5,000+yen (~$65), we honestly felt insulted, paying so much for the crappiest "Chinese" food we've ever had.
It boggles my mind why the food at Santon was so half-assed, and it could very well be the fact that we ordered all the wrong dishes. At the table next to us were 4 ladies who were 30-going-on-13 shrieking and squealing away at the night and their pints, and the restaurant even had a waiting line! And it was Chinatown for goodness's sake! I do understand terrible Chinese food can happen even in China, but how could it be that I've had better at Panda-Wok-whathaveyou-Express than a restaurant in Yokohama Chinatown? Yes, I've eaten at Panda Express. Hell, give me a spectrum and I've tried it all, and Santon Restaurant was definitely at the tip of the crappy end! This is probably the harshest thing I've ever said about a Chinese restaurant, and one in Chinatown, no less!
In fact, I was so outraged I refused to throw out the barely touched Shacha Beef we took home. I was determined to "fix" it - it was perfectly good ingredients with bad luck in even worse hands! It didn't have to stay "Shacha Beef," I just needed it to be edible! And the first thing I did was washing the coconut off (in a pot of water, yes). Good riddance! Then I recooked everything in a beef broth and make it into a hearty beef and vegetable soup. The slight coconut taste that remained actually reminded me of a Southeast Asian appetizer that is basically sea snail (hey, the French eats escargot too!) simmered in a coconut milk broth with herbs and lemongrass (ốc hút/ốc len xào dừa) - delicious!