I’ve recently learned there’s no more appropriate viewing when gnawing on a cold duck neck than the Syfy vampire gorefest Van Helsing, which can be a colorful primer on how to eat your way around cervical vertebrae.
Well, maybe you’d approach a human neck differently, but at Bridgeport’s A Place by Damao, you just pick up the bird’s nape from each end and get in there, nicking precious scraps of spice- and soy-braised flesh out of the curves and angles of the tiny vertebrae like a merciless, red-fanged predator. If you happen to have a higher opinion of your manners, you can slip on a pair of the thin, clear plastic gloves you’ll be offered. You’ll miss some of fun, though—like licking the thick Sichuan peppercorn rub from your fingertips. It buzzes like it’s still alive.
Same thing applies to the duck wings, duck feet, duck tongues, and duck heads you’ll find under a glass display case by the register at the rear of this tiny strip-mall storefront. The prominent flat-screen television throws a glow on hotel pans full of chewy chicken gizzards, snappy pork ears, and wiry chicken feet. These various bites are served cold, as you’d find them on the street in Chengdu, China. A Place by Damao doesn’t have a liquor license, so if you imbibe, you want to be sure you come prepared with your favorite poison, because this is ideal drinking food. I drank cheap Riesling one night and three different kinds of mezcal on another. Doesn’t matter. You’ll be working at it, and the booze helps you enjoy it more.
A Place by Damao is the creation of 24-year-old Aishan “Damao” Zhong and partner Mori Guo, who are emblematic of a new Chinatown that’s bleeding into Bridgeport and becoming ever more interesting with the arrivals of young fresh blood. Opening last August to daunting lines, the tiny space is smartly appointed with painted wooden boards on the walls announcing the dishes in Chinese.
Illustrator Qin Ma also designed the menu with an eye to its clarity for non-Chinese speakers; its hand-drawn and -labeled cartoon diagrams of eight iconic “Chengdu Famous Plates” will let you know that, e.g., the soft spicy bean curd is topped with minced green onion, pickled cabbage, and soybeans as well as house-made chile oil. What it doesn’t show is what a luxurious pleasure this dish is: diaphanous clouds of tofu slip down the throat on a warm, red tide, the crunchy soybeans adding a reversal of texture, the cabbage’s pungent punch and the onion’s grassy bite adding another. I’d purchase screen prints of these illustrations if they were for sale.
The menu is a bit more obtuse in its rendering of the handmade bell dumplings hiding a dark deposit of sweet “Secret sauce by Damao.” These are slim but stout-walled flat half moons wrapped around tightly molded gobs of gingery ground pork. In terms of dumplings, they’re nearly as satisfying as the wontons in hot soup, fat but relatively thin-skinned, bulging with ground pork and nestled winsomely in a volcanic full-bodied chicken-and-beef broth that’s clear evidence of the compatibility of pleasure and pain.
That soup is among the spiciest dishes on hand at Damao. Another is a deceptively innocuous-looking pile of crinkle-cut french fries, intentionally just cooked to a state of softness that helps absorb another gently sweet and spicy “secret sauce,” the crack that compels you to reach for these steadily and repeatedly until they’re gone. It’s a flavor profile similar to the marvelous thick handmade noodles, cut with sesame and showered with crushed peanuts. A sliced chub of crimson-stained, fat-flecked pork sausage poses the same threat of heat; its look says Oktoberfest, but its slow, menacing burn doesn’t exist anywhere in Europe.
I realize that—to at least a few of you—brains are a tough sell. But remember how good I said the aforementioned soft spicy bean curd was? Imagine what you’d do if you had lots of pigs, but no soybeans. A special I hope remains forever on the menu is a small dish of brain matter, its distinctive anatomical characteristics obscured by chile oil and chopped fresh cilantro. It’s an empty vessel that absorbs these seasonings and transmits them to your own nervous system via soft, custardlike lobular formations.
A special spicy noodle soup with braised beef is no slouch either. Deeply rich, almost a balm to some of the more assertive liquids on the menu, it harbors fatty slices of meat that fall apart at the touch of the tongue. Firm spaghetti–bore wheat noodles are the third player in this remarkable bowl.
A trio of barbecued meats fills out this focused menu. Shredded caramelized rabbit bits are the Sichuanese answer to classic Chicago-style ribs tips. I’ll never understand cigars, but I imagine their appeal is similar to that of the lingering smokiness these meaty scraps provide as you deliberately work through the shattered skeletal structure. Equally smoky roasted pig feet are easier to deal with, the warm, jellylike collagen being the draw here, with bigger and fewer bones to get in the way. Tiny pork riblets may be the gateway meat: dry-rubbed, with a hint of sweetness, the flesh separates from the bones with little effort or interference.
There’s a singular sweet on the menu: a “teardrop cake” (here “iced water cake”), a parfait-like assemblage of clear water, sugar, and agar jelly that was blowing up the Internet last summer. Usually served inverted, at Damao it’s presented in a bowl in a couple of variations: one with subtly boozy and astringent fermented rice; one with brown sugar, dried hawthorn, sesame seeds, and raisins; and one that’s a combination of the two. It’s a cool, Achatzesque reward for your palate’s previous exertions.
Some people maintain Sichuan food is one-dimensional, all tongue-numbing oily burn and buzz. But that neglects the variety of diverting visceral textures it offers. More than most Sichuan restaurants in Chinatown, Damao is a place with food for lingering over important ideas, gesturing emphatically with denuded duck tongues and chicken feet. This style of eating may be old hat in Chengdu, but in Chicago it looks like a bright future for Chinese food. v