An eggplant has much in common with its emoji counterpart. A poorly cooked eggplant is watery and mushy that lacks flavor. However, you’ll be happily surprised to hear that the fish-fragrant eggplant at Tianchu (stylized as Yushang Eggplant) is not like these terribly cooked ones.
Tianchu sits on East William Street, a mere a block away from Central Campus. When you walk up the ramp leading into the dining space, you are greeted with the background noise of Chinese television along with a powerful whiff of savory oil and chili spice into your nose. Walking into Tianchu is in many ways similar to walking into your favorite local diner; the wave of smells wafting from the kitchen creates a powerful perfume-like teaser for your appetite.
Sichuan food is the mainstay of Tianchu, and one could safely assume it’s responsible for the smells coming from the kitchen. But, if your assumptions of Sichuan food are those of intense heat and pain, you would be correct — but also sorely mistaken. The aforementioned Yushang Eggplant shatters your preconceived notions by introducing you to a glossy sauce that is sour and sweet on the surface, with the bare shimmering undertones of heat binding the sauce together. The eggplant, which is deep fried before getting tossed with sauce, provides a crispy and smokey skin that yields into a sweet and creamy interior tinted with the yushang sauce absorbed by the eggplant — the perfect partner-in-crime.
Despite its translation as “fish-fragrant,” yushang (also spelled as yuxiang) does not contain any fish or shellfish within its sauce base. The dish is named as such due to the sauce’s inherent flavor profile. The spicy, sweet and sour characteristics are meant to evoke the taste of Sichuan fish dishes. While yushang eggplant is inherently vegetarian, carnivores may be pleased to find that a similar dish made with pork exists within Tianchu’s menu.
If hot and spicy is the flavor profile you are looking for, Tianchu’s water-boiled flounder fillet will satisfy your craving. A mountain of sliced chiles and vegetables peaks out of the lake of savory red broth while chunks of flounder remain submerged underneath. Tianchu’s version of water-boiled flounder is served with sliced Napa cabbage commonly found in Sichuan restaurants in Southern California, rather than bean sprouts that may be more commonly found within Sichuan province. The Napa cabbage adds a pleasant crunch — a much needed textural counter to the intensely soft and tender flesh of the flounder. In spite of an evilly spicy yet fruity aroma wafting from the chiles, the broth itself is quite tame in its heat level. This broth, savory and spicy, possesses a hint of numbness present from the Sichuan peppercorns. You rejoice as this broth, unlike many broths found in water-boiled fish, can be combined with rice for leftovers for the next day.
It would be extremely difficult to eat your way through of Tianchu’s expansive menu, due to its huge selections of Sichuan, Korean and American Chinese cuisine. However, Tianchu’s Sichuan food keeps you perfectly content, as you learn to appreciate beyond the emblematic, if not stereotypical, flavors of spice and numbness within Sichuan cuisine.