The name is almost as big as the 10-table restaurant. Zoe’s is a neighborhood café and take-out joint that has developed a significant reputation for unusual Mandarin-Sichuan dishes. However, it has an enormous and fully bilingual menu of everything from chop suey to Shanghai-style eel, and an unusual menu of “North-South style” dishes that are supposed to be regional fusions. Recent reports that Zoe’s owners have taken over a much larger space in Brookline are enticing, but would be more so if they also planned to trim down or at least focus their menu more clearly on the group of novel and exciting dishes that regulars have settled on.
NOT YOUR TYPICAL CHINESE TAKEOUT: Zoe’s serves up exotic delights.
You need not opt for exotic choices with the appetizers, where the regular list features a competent version of honey boneless spareribs ($5.75), a generous but somewhat overbreaded vegetable tempura ($5), and a genuinely intriguing stuffed tofu crêpe with vegetables ($4.75). This last dish is tofu skin wrapped around shredded vegetables, and it is as good as any Chinese vegan dish I’ve had.
Most of the unusual appetizers are featured on a menu of “cold appetizers.” There is the usual Shanghai-style five-spice beef slices and such, but also things like garlic white pork ($6.45) and Sichuan green-bean tofu ($4.50), which looks like a bowl of noodles. It contains, in fact, neither green beans nor tofu as we have known it. Apparently the “noodles” are strips of some blander, rather fragile tofu made from green soybeans or green non-soybeans. Whatever delicate flavor they have is overcome by plenty of chili oil, chopped nuts, and a few scallions. The white pork looks like meaty slices of bacon or fatback, but the mouthfeel is somewhat crisp. It probably helps that the slices are dressed with an amazing quantity of chopped garlic and quite of bit of chili oil.
You could also use something like squid with salt and pepper ($9.45) as an appetizer, but this Hong Kong dish doesn’t show the kitchen at its best. The squid are beautifully cut into “dragon scales,” but there’s too much breading, and this dish isn’t as exciting as what you can get in Chinatown.
A little less breading works interestingly in a Sichuan entrée like “dry diced chicken with hot chili” ($8.50). The chilies are both dried red peppers fried in oil (and not intended for actual eating), and milder, fresh green chilies that a person who likes spicy food can eat, especially if he or she discards the seeds. Both flavors are well captured in the breading around the little cubes of chicken, which also have some flavor of coriander seeds.
Coriander seeds are also part of the novel lamb with cumin and spicy sauce dish ($11.95). Cumin and coriander make us think more of Indian than Chinese food, but this dish, probably inspired by Chinese Muslim cuisine, is a keeper. Stemmy coriander leaf is the wonderful flavor featured in the tripe with cilantro ($8.95). The tripe here is meaty and cut into strips, then stir-fried to a chewy texture, so it’s quite different than tripe dishes from other cuisines. I recommend this even to people who’ve tried tripe and not liked it. Tea-smoked duck ($11.50) is bone-in, but with plenty of smoke, and highly recommended if you have time to pick it apart.