America is a nation of laws, not men, which means David Chang’s current fixation on oxtails or Anthony Bourdain’s interest in crab fat may only have limited influence on how we eat. But so long as you live in this country, you’re guaranteed not to find horsemeat in your hamburger, or cyanide in your cherry pie.
There is no similar government-given right to Chinese food. But civic education isn’t a U.S. strong suit, and there seems to be some confusion on this score, at least as measured by the umbrage that Charleston-area residents take at the challenges associated with scaring up standout eggrolls.
In other words, I spend a disproportionate amount of time explaining why the city is short on Chinese restaurants, a phenomenon attributable to economics, history and culture. My standard response to people bemoaning the situation is to point out that a round-trip ticket from CHS (Charleston) to LGA (LaGuardia) is $107, which is about the price of dinner for two at many downtown Charleston restaurants. From there, it costs $2.75 to ride the Q19 bus to Flushing.
But now it turns out there is food in the noodle-and-dumpling realm worth staying home for, provided you’re not too hung up on the “restaurant” portion of “Chinese restaurant.” It also helps if you can confine your craving to 12 hours a week.
Kwei Fei is more menu than place. Since October, chef David Schuttenberg has been serving Sichuan food at The Daily on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m.-midnight. During his occupations, the venue belongs to the Kwei Fei crew alone, which means they control the soundtrack — Journey may segue into Guns N’ Roses and then back to Journey again — and customers can’t have avocado toast and matcha lattes while they wait for their gong bao ji ding.
As its name suggests, gong bao is the ancestral version of kung pao, the stir-fried chicken-and-peanut dish that’s on endless repeat at Chinese food stands in shopping malls and airport terminals. Kwei Fei’s version is literally worlds away from that, with a nearly one-to-one ratio of shiny Tien Tsin peppers to chunks of chicken thigh. It is exceedingly bad form to allude to bodily trimmings while discussing food, so I can’t tell you that the stark red, curved-tip peppers resemble so many Lee Press-On Nails. But know that the dramatic-looking dish both beckons and threatens: Sichuan cooking is designed to hurt so good.
Chile peppers define gong bao, but at least at Kwei Fei, the peanuts make it (as for the chicken, it’s stir-fried superbly, but vegetarians can swap it out for cauliflower without any loss of pleasure). Cloaked in the same garlicky soy gloss as the peppers, meat and slivered scallions, each peanut is a yin-yang discourse on texture, with crunch giving way to fleeciness. Those peanuts are perhaps my favorite single thing in a lineup packed with charismatic ingredients.
All of them, though, are faithful to Sichuanese traditions, which is likely to come as a disappointment to eaters who conflate “Chinese” with Cantonese cuisine. Those on the hunt for fried rice and wonton soup are still at the mercy of JetBlue. For everyone else, Kwei Fei is bound to exceed expectations.
Schuttenberg came up with Kwei Fei after leaving Patrick Properties Hospitality Group for nonnewsworthy reasons. Hired at Fish in its final months, Schuttenberg was supposed to lead the restaurant through its transformation into Parcel 32, but his style didn’t square with the project as then-CEO Randall Goldman envisioned it. Feeling marooned in Charleston, having first moved here to oversee his pal Damon Wise’s star-crossed Scarecrow & Co. restaurant triad, Schuttenberg decided to shift his focus from grand schemes to personal satisfaction.
Back in New York, Schuttenberg had achieved communality with the wok at Fatty Crab, a Malaysian cafe that magnetized influential eaters in the early 2000s. He fused that muscle memory with everything he could glean about Sichuanese food from reading up on it and slapped the name of a Tang Dynasty concubine on the end result.
So Schuttenberg is another white guy cooking Asian food, which is a dynamic that can prove problematic. In Schuttenberg’s case, though, the handiwork is too meticulous and approach too respectful to stir up serious concerns about cultural appropriation. While it’s always a question worth exploring, Schuttenberg’s use of Sichuanese methods and ingredients feels more akin to a painter confining herself to shades of blue.
Beyond the dozen or so dishes on Schuttenberg’s paper menu, Kwei Fei is a fairly stripped-down operation. Orders are taken at the counter, and the alcoholic drink choices are limited to four beers and wine in three colors. (The corkage fee is $15 for eaters who fancy something more sophisticated.) Chopsticks and napkins are on the tables, although only the latter is needed for the redoubtable chicken wings.
Part of Schuttenberg’s trick for wings involves freezing them, which creates the temperature contrast that accounts for their crisp, papery-thin finish. But their rice wine-tinged flavor is equally on point, with just enough blisteringly clean heat to pucker the palate for all of the impending ma la, or the vibrating current that occurs at the intersection of spicy chile peppers and anesthetizing Sichuan peppercorns.
If any dish at Kwei Fei could be classified as divisive, it’s probably the sliced pork belly, served sporting a devastatingly alluring blend of dark soy sauce and chile oil. The sauce has rich overtones of licorice and earth, but it’s the classic example of a dish that not everybody likes, because not everybody likes eating pure pork fat. Better perhaps to go with the pork slivers in garlic chili sauce, which has a more familiar cooked character, but its own sweet charms.
Otherwise, the menu at Kwei Fei is refreshingly free of trouble zones. Every dish has something to cheer, from the brightness of white sesame seeds scattered atop firm cucumber wedges saturated with hot bean paste to the silkiness of the tofu bobbing about with wood ear mushrooms in a thickish mapo sauce.
It’s also notable what the dishes at Kwei Fei are not: Despite Sichuanese cuisine’s reliance on salt and oil, that’s far from the overriding impression created by any of the menu items. Even a saucy dish such as Ants Climbing a Tree, a classic preparation of glass noodles, tastes more like pork and peppers than the oil required for stir-frying.
During Charleston’s unending winter, the obvious order was Kwei Fei’s tingly beef noodle soup, furnished with vibrant mustard greens and hunks of meat that would put any mere pot roast to shame. But really, the bowl’s excellence is unlikely to fade when the sun returns on a daily basis, as it undoubtedly will, which is not something that every American living in the vicinity of a great Chinese restaurant can count on.