PLANO – I was struggling to think of what was so comforting about a dish I'd never had before, dry Yangchuan lo mein, when it struck me. This bowl of slightly firm egg noodles in a rich, brothy sauce was a kind of Chinese spaghetti Bolognese. Skip the tomato, naturally, use coarse-ground pork and no beef, make it spicy and add bean sprouts and tofu-skin strips. So not at all like spaghetti Bolognese, actually, and yet just as soothing and familiar.
Oddly, our server at Fish House Family Cuisine had tried to wave me off this dish. I suspect that was because lo mein is a misnomer that makes non-Chinese (or "foreigners," as our sweet if somewhat baffled server called them) expect the Americanized-Chinese version. Truth be told, she fretted about many of the things I ordered over the course of several visits. But like those noodles, just about everything I tried at this 2-year-old Sichuan restaurant was both deeply authentic and accessible. Much of the food is spicy, sure, with the heat of chiles and the buzz of Sichuan peppercorn, but it's less searing, less oily, and somehow subtler and lighter than you'll find in many other Sichuan places in town.
Consider, for example, the profoundly simple yet wonderful hot and sour cabbage, cooked until just tender, with a gentle vinegar tang and a touch of heat from dried peppers. Or the shredded potato, again cooked until just done, and slicked with chile oil. The potato shreds somehow hold together, like spaghetti, their cool sweetness offset by the shimmering heat of the oil. It's a classic, humble dish – and it's spectacular.
Its name notwithstanding, Fish House leans only slightly toward seafood. But how could you not try the wonderfully named old godmother shrimp? It's a rich, mildly hot stir-fry with thin-sliced carrots, button and tree ear mushrooms with savory fermented black-bean sauce (the name may come from a popular Chinese brand of that sauce). If you're adventurous, pork kidneys also get the old godmother treatment; in either case, the various elements are vibrant and distinct.
The tilapia swimming in the tanks that sit along a wall of the bare-bones, unprepossessing dining room can be had in one of the "live fish" house specials: the hot pot, a vast, steaming cauldron of bone-in fish chunks in fiery broth. My table went simply nuts one night over the special spicy fish -- beautifully fried, crispy slices of catfish sprinkled with chile flakes and tossed with onions and peppers. A sautéed version, the fish with garlic sauce, on the other hand, was weirdly sweet and soft.
There's lots more besides seafood here. Lamb or beef (or, for that matter, shrimp or pork intestine) come in a brothless variant on the hot pot, here dubbed "dried pot." The lamb was lovely -- ribbons of tender meat tossed with sliced onions, scallions and green and dried red peppers. It comes sizzling in a sort of mini-wok set over a flame. A fine dish called Ge Le Mountain-style spicy chicken, small chunks of chicken tossed with copious amounts of dried red peppers, can be had with the meat either deep-fried (for foreigners, as our server said) or, traditionally, stir-fried, which is how we had it. Fish House also makes the punchiest version of preserved duck I've ever tasted, the meat cured and smoked until it's basically ham with wings. And like just about everything here, it flies pretty high.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Fish House Family Cuisine (3 stars)
Price: $$ (soups, noodles and fried rice $4.50 to $7.95; entrees $6.95 to $14.95; lunch specials $5.95 to $7.95 )
Service: Servers are welcoming and friendly, though their English can be wobbly. As is often the case in Chinese restaurants that aren't aimed at Westerners, dishes come out in no particular order.
Ambience: The dining room is unprepossessing and a little threadbare, with some signs of wear. The few decorative gestures include some artificial leaves hanging from the ceiling and some strings of fake garlic and peppers.
Noise level: Low, even when the restaurant is fairly busy.
Location: 151 W. Spring Creek Parkway, Plano; 972-527-1258
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted, and strongly recommended on Saturday evenings
Credit cards: MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: No alcohol. You can BYOB, and there's no corkage fee, but be prepared to drink your wine from teacups.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50