“We eat everything with four legs except tables and everything with wings except airplanes,” is a saying we heard in southern China, where we sampled such delicacies as scorpion on a stick, pig-blood soup, fried starfish, grilled snake and lots of internal organs from species unknown.
In the spirit of Chinese voraciousness, Richard Hales has gotten creative without going fusion on his menu at the new Black Brick, also known as Midtown Chinese. Best of all, he’s imbued his place with personality and a sense of humor.
“I want it to be true to where it started,” Hales says. “We are using the best ingredients and mastering the techniques to help this city recognize that we should have a Chinese place not doing sushi.”
With the help of chefs from Hong Kong and Hunan province, Hales is putting out treats like lamb tongue flatbread, General Tso’s Alligator, fried duck head, whole rabbit and jellyfish salad.
His casual, fast-paced spot is at once hip and welcoming. It helps that prices are reasonable and the staff super friendly.
Most days find Hales in the open kitchen, where an occasional chili bomb fills the air with pungent spice that makes your eyes water. Thanks to a powerful fan, the sensation lasts only a moment.
Less than comfy with its hard-back wooden booths and metal stools, the space is like a backstreet nightclub. Namesake brickwall segments set off shiny red paint inter cut with stripes of graffiti art and images of Hales heroes including Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee and Keith Richards. Cage-like hanging red metal lanterns lend a whimsical edge.
Waiter service and a full bar with a tiny but well-curated wine list, classic cocktails and local brews raise the experience beyond Hales’ Sakaya Kitchen and his sought-after dim sum truck.
Pork laobing wasn’t like a flat bread as our tattooed water had said, but more like a flaky, folded roti as thick as a Nicholas Sparks novel. Stuffed with succulent pork and loaded with spice, it was a delicious if heavy way to start a meal.
Other starchy standouts include fluffy fried rice with roast duck and sausage as well as fantastic house-made bucatini buried beneath slabs of juicy Berkshire pork, sweet sesame paste, Schezuan pepper, diced scallions and chopped roasted peanuts. Fluffy buns as soft and white as marshmallows are as good as the ones at Sakaya. especially stuffed with smoky, cumin-spiced lamb.
Wonton soup gets star treatment with stock from rabbit and duck bones that make it richly textured but still delicate. The steamy broth is packed with hand-rolled shrimp wontons and topped with tender, flavorful pork slices.
Dumplings wrapped in thin, chewy dough were as comforting as a nap in the sun. The General’s Gator, a spicy, gloppy, deep-fried rendition, would appeal to those who like the chicken version — just a lot spicier. Friends raved about the egg rolls with a sweet and sour pumpkin sauce.
I’m wild about the crispy-skinned Peking duck served with puffy buns as well as buttery, roti-style discs. Traditional slivered cucumbers and scallions make it easy to assemble your own little sandwiches.
I was thrilled with the abundance and quality of vegetables: thumb-sized eggplants as purple and glistening as amethyst; baby bok choy stir-fried with bits of bitey ginger; green beans dry-fried and tossed with nice spice. Some of the greens, however, including Chinese mustard greens and kale in a salad, are left too large for chopsticks.
Desserts may not be part of the Chinese tradition, but they are novel. Peanut butter ice cream is topped sriracha sauce and toasted coconut. Decadent trifles include a banana and bourbon version. Big, crispy waffle cookies are stuffed with goofy messages — “Laugh alone and the world thinks you’re an idiot.”
You can also get nice hot pots of Lipton tea, but definitely no sushi.