Fire it Up 

Lucky Strike Means Fantastic Taste

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THE TEXTURE of the spicy jellyfish salad is more than a little difficult to explain. The word "crunchy" springs to mind—because there is a distinct crunch as you chew—but that would discount the springiness also present between the teeth. Maybe it's less of a crunch and more of a snap, like biting into a sausage casing. More than anything, the delectable pile of thin, shiny tentacles, tossed in a garlicky pepper sauce, resembles delicate noodles. The urge to slurp them is almost overwhelming. But it just doesn't seem right, somehow... slurping tentacles. And so go the thoughts of a spice-addled brain, dining at the Sichuan outpost of Lucky Strike.

Eating at Lucky Strike is a matter of finding anything to staunch your flow of befuddlement. After all, you've traveled to the hinterlands of the city, found the restaurant hiding ungraciously in the corner of a tiny bedraggled strip mall, had the good fortune to arrive when they were open (which is not guaranteed), became confused because the restaurant's boundaries are doubled by an enormous mirror on the wall, and finally sat down to a menu that includes a section titled "On the safer side."

For the most part, Lucky Strike's menu teeters on the border of the known and unknown. Having never been to China's Sichuan province I can't vouch for the authenticity, but I do know you won't find spicy pig intestines ($10) at your average chow mein palace—which may be for the best, considering tripe is an acquired taste (but so worth acquiring). I will also say, with confidence, that Lucky Strike's cuisine is delectable—if you happen to enjoy eating fire.

One of the more astounding dishes here is the hot pepper chicken bath ($10), which describes exactly what you get. When the plate arrives, it looks like a mistake. You might nervously ask your server, "Where's the chicken?" It's there in that intimidating pile of glistening dried red chiles. I imagine eating hot pepper chicken bath is analogous to the sensation of licking a hot wok. The chicken's flavor is frontloaded with savory wok char followed promptly by a clean bright heat.

That bright heat is especially apparent in the Mapo tofu ($9)—braised tofu in a beef broth—and can be attributed in part to the sprinkling of prickly ash (or Sichuan pepper) with its hint of pine and an almost anesthetic quality on the tongue. Paired with silky tofu, the effect is pleasantly odd.

But so much of the menu at Lucky Strike is pleasantly odd, in contrast of texture and flavor. The spicy pig's ears ($5), sliced into thin strips, have the opposite texture of the jellyfish salad ($5): tender before a cartilaginous snap. The Dan Dan noodles ($4) are firm, almost chewy, and work perfectly with diced pork and spicy broth. The spicy kimchee fried rice ($8) is a riot of heat, tangy funkiness from fermented cabbage, mellow fluffy fried egg, and rice. It goes on and on....

The portions are just right if what you've ordered is available (again, it's not guaranteed), and the price is recession-tastic. But I can't say for certain Lucky Strike cares much about its customers. The owners are pleasant enough, but it's as if anything they'd care to communicate is said through the food; what you get is a taunt, a challenge, a sly wink, a shrug, and a loving pat on the back before you head home with a bag full of leftovers, wondering if the whole thing was some weird, flavorful dream.

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