Lovers of authentic Chinese food rejoice: The area near the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst has become a happy hunting ground for eaters long haunted by Chinatown memories they could never satisfy in Buffalo. ¶ By my count, Miss Hot Cafe is the fourth new restaurant in two years whose primary mission is serving Chinese nationals drawn here by the University at Buffalo. ¶ Run by Lei Linwang and her family, the restaurant specializes in Shanghaiese and Sichuan dishes. This place has a huge menu that, despite the recent Chinese influx, offers more than 20 dishes I haven’t seen offered in Western New York. ¶ A competent General Tso’s chicken ($6.49 lunch) is on the menu. So are three frog dishes. The dish names, like much of the menu, leave non-Chinese readers guessing (“Spicy Frog $16.95”). But there’s also sea cucumber ($24.95) and jellyfish ($8.95), as one of the cold appetizers so prized in Shanghaiese cuisine.
You could get lost in this menu. Here are some suggestions and discoveries, but explore away. (Since it’s near my house, and my family digs Chinese food, I visited more than once at my own expense, and the owner identified me early on.) Service was swift and accurate, even before meeting the owner. If you need forks or an explanation, do not hesitate to ask.
“Spicy hot barbecued fish” ($19.99) is a whole tilapia that’s been crusted in a mixture of ground peanuts, fermented black beans, sesame seeds and spices, then fried. It arrives perched on a pile of sauteed cabbage and chopped lettuce.
You peel the fillets off with their crackly coating, enjoyably piquant even if they do have that vaguely muddy tilapia flavor. When the fish is gone, cast bones aside and scoop up spoonfuls of vegetables tossed with crusty bits. Even the experienced China hounds at my table expressed delight.
Another delight was the enigmatically labeled “Big Dish” ($14.95). It’s a steaming cauldron of Sichuan chile broth packed with noodles, cabbage, mushrooms, pork, chicken, shrimp, fish, tofu and more, vast enough for four to share with other dishes.
I asked for it mild and got a toned-down version everyone enjoyed. Important note: Besides avoiding chomping on the dried chile peppers, do not finish off the broth unless you have titanium guts. Unlike Western soups, it’s meant for flavoring, not draining to the last drop. Trawl the cauldron and eat the solids on rice.
Crispy lamb with chili ($15.95) was a Mongolian nod, cumin-dusted lamb slices stir-fried but still tender, heaped on a plate and surrounded by fried fish crackers and cilantro. We scooped lamb onto crackers, adding a sprig, and devoured what reminded me of Chinese nachos.
Fish with sour cabbage, ordered “without soup” ($13.95) was yet another crowd pleaser. It was mild boneless white fish stir-fried with chopped pickled cabbage in a clear, tangy sauce.
The kicker was a ring of fried crullers, a sort of plain doughnut, lining the plate. Eaten with the fish, the crullers offered a satisfying if greasy crunch.
Black mushrooms with bok choy ($9.95) was a delicate, deftly cooked dish that offered respite from all the chile action. Tender braised shiitakes and faintly crisp baby cabbage were tossed in a clear, mild cornstarch sauce.
The cold appetizers included marinated duck ($7.95), roast duck hacked up bone-in, skin-on and doused with dark sweet sauce.
Ox tongue and tripe ($7.25) was a tangle of tender, velvety tongue and thin tripe sheets that were tender-crunchy, tossed with chile oil, peanuts, cilantro and scallion slivers. It was too spicy for some and teetered nearby for others, but its intoxicating flavor and textures kept us eating.
Marinated sliced beef ($7.95) is sweet braised beef shin with a smooth texture, aromatic with star anise and rich with gelatin. Shanghai-style smoked fish ($7.95), bass hacked up bone-in, deep fried and marinated, was tasty but had too many little bones for me.
Peanut with sour sauce ($4.55) would be delicious with a round of beers, but there’s no alcohol license yet.
There’s a page of dumplings and other dim sum. Do get the mushroom and chive buns ($2.75), puffy pan-fried sweet dough stuffed with savory vegetables. If it’s the weekend, go for dessert, flaky-crusted house-made egg tarts ($1.60), filled with simple, satisfyingly eggy custard.
Skip the underflavored scallion pancake ($1.99). Their shui mai dumplings ($2.99) are stuffed with rice, not the usual pork-shrimp mixture, sadly.
Vegetarians and vegans will find a broader list of choices here than most Chinese places. There’s marinated gluten ($7.25), sweet and chewy with crunchy peanuts, and shredded spicy potatoes with vinegar ($7.95). Tofu in sauce ($5.95) is a sliced tofu brick topped with piquant chile oil, chopped pickles, cilantro and other stuff that made me happy to eat cold tofu.
But be sure to confirm that a dish is meatless, even if it’s listed on the Vegetables page, as choices like ma po tofu ($9.95) and sauteed string bean ($9.95) usually have pork, unless you ask for no meat.
There are enough gems on Miss Hot Cafe’s deep menu, delivered swiftly and surely, to put it in the first rank of Western New York’s ethnic restaurants.
Miss Hot Cafe: Rating 8 plates (Out of 10)
Vast authentic Chinese menu delivers delights of Shanghaiese, Sichuan cuisines.
WHERE: 3311 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (832-3188, www.misshotcafe.com)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Dumplings and appetizers, $1.50-$5.95; soups, $3.95-$19.95; entrees, $7.95-$19.95
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.