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Chinese sizzle

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Gele Mountain chicken.
Photo: Mark Hancock

The cheapest airfare from Oklahoma City to Beijing presently is around $1,200. One reason for traveling there is to sample what’s arguably the most highly developed cuisine in the world.

To avoid jet lag and airport hassle and save some cash, you should consider heading to Ba Shu Legends in Norman instead. It’s a place that has courageously distanced itself from the mild flavors found at Chinese chains such as Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.

Ba Shu’s dining room is
simple and similar to Chinese restaurants across the Midwest. The decor
includes happy red paper lanterns and brushstroke calligraphy wallpaper.

The
place is spic-and-span and comfortable. There was barely audible easy
listening music coming from the kitchen, but the room was otherwise
quiet. Our server, Apple, didn’t understand my poor Mandarin, and
English words such as “napkin” eluded her, too, so we were off to a
pleasantly comedic start.

Communication
challenges added to Ba Shu’s aura of inscrutable Asian authenticity. On
its website, the text begins with Chinese characters with English words
second.

The spicy
manifesto is openly declared: “These escalated street food from Sichuan
and Chongqing have attracted numerous patrons that are craving for the
authentic New Style ‘Ma La’ Sichuan Cuisine.” That means it’s hot,
y’all.

The challenge was irresistible.

Most
Ba Shu signature dishes are ultra-spicy, and Gele Mountain chili
chicken ($11.98) sounded like a dare worth taking. On some menus, this
dish is called firecracker chicken, so you get the idea; it’s an
explosion in your mouth. My chili-shy spouse chose sesame chicken
($9.98), which, although bland as buttermilk, was still tasty. There are
plenty of other tame and familiar choices such as sweet and sour
chicken ($8.98) and beef lo mein ($6.98). Don’t be safe when you can
take a walk on the wild side and order bones chicken on hot wok ($12.98)
or spicy poached pork tripe ($12.98).

Our
meals began with a wholly disappointing egg drop soup. The menu
promised all dinners included tomato egg drop soup and steamed white
rice. Since tomatoes aren’t common in Chinese cooking, this sounded at
least offbeat, but it wasn’t.

Onward
and upward to Gele Mountain chicken that arrived at the table as a
sizzling mound of chicken chunks, onions and red pepper. Past experience
with Sichuan dishes from Taipei, Taiwan to Vancouver, B.C., included
what was often dozens of whole red pepper pods three inches or so long
sauteed with the meat and vegetables. At that length, the pods are
easily pushed aside and discarded.

Inexplicably,
Ba Shu’s chef had chopped the peppers down to a half inch or less,
making it a tedious task to pick them out. Once removed, the peppers
filled an entire empty rice bowl. The remaining dish was only mildly
blistering to the palate.

Apple
and her pitcher of ice water were a welcome sight. Both chicken dishes
were stingy with vegetables and generous with meat, the genuine Chinese
preference.

Ba Shu
house fried rice ($8.98) is a festively colorful stir with little pink
shrimp, carrots, mahogany-hued ham and green peas. Pork with Beijing
sauce ($10.98) boasted delicate but complex flavor and tasted like
typical fare in any big American city’s Chinatown. There is good Chinese
chow at Ba Shu Legends, no passport required.

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