I was on the road to Atlanta and the prospect of lunch in Tuscaloosa has lost much of its allure. So I decided to settle on a late lunch and push on to Birmingham. I had a few places in mind, but one was a Chinese grocery and restaurant and who can resist the allure of a new and exciting Chinese restaurant? After a few miles on I-65 and a little wiggling around Homewood, I was in the parking lot of the Red Pearl Restaurant. Well, judging from the exterior, the Super Oriental Market & Red Pearl Restaurant isn’t exactly new, but that’s beside the point.
Once you walk through the sliding doors, you’re stuck between two separate worlds. On your left is Costco’s worth of fresh and frozen produce, canned goods, kitchen supplies, seafood, and everything else Asian oriented all crammed into the space the size of a large convenience store. To your right is a small galley shaped dining room. The right wall is papered with pictures of off-menu plates and specials and on the back wall is a large TV playing a random assortment of music videos from the last few decades. It’s not exactly a banquet setting, but it’s welcoming enough.
Since we were still in the last throes of winter, Birmingham was cold that day. Hovering in the high 40’s and rainy, it was the perfect weather for a warming elixir, a steaming bowl of soup. With nine choices in the soup section, there was plenty to choose from but a picture on the wall is what really caught my eye. Labeled as the House Style Noodle Soup, this seafood smorgasbord was just what I needed.
At first glance this bowl may look like a gloried bowl of soggy noodles with a few greens thrown in for good measure, but it was much more than that.
This was a spicy broth that left a ring of chili oil around the rim of the bowl; beyond that, this was a soup teeming with the loud flavors of celery, greens, and cilantro.
Of course, the addition of tender head on shrimp, just cooked squid, and a few errant mussels lent their share of flavor to the bowl as well.
Although I could get lost in Red Pearl’s menu for days, I immediately scanned for any sign of my Sichuan favorites. While Beef in Hot Chili Oil Soup and Mapo Tofu were in their respective beef and tofu sections, it was another dish that really caught my eye. The Sizzling Flank Szechuan Style stands out from the rest of the menu, not only because it’s the only dish featuring beef flank but because it is the only dish explicitly labeled as Szechuan.
Seeing a sizzling, flame assisted bowl arrive from the kitchen is always a treat. It’s akin to the first time I ate at a teppanyaki table. When you’re a kid, the experience of spinning spatulas, egg tricks, onion volcanoes, and fiery flare ups is more than a meal, it’s still a show, not some hindrance on your quest for fried steak and rice.
Expecting a few slices against the grain, I was surprised to find this dish ran the gamut in textures. The first piece of beef was silky and tender, almost like braised short rib.
From there, I began to revel in the fried squares of tofu that were swimming in a chili bean paste based sauce.
This Sizzling Flank may not have been the “ma la” bomb that I’m always hoping for, but it was beef in all its textural forms: fatty, soft, tender, chewy, it was all there and it was backed by the sublime effects of fried tofu.
Unfortunately I had to cut my meal at the Red Pearl Restaurant short. Atlanta, the promise of Buford Highway and a sausage making class were beckoning and it’s hard to turn down an offer of stuffing your own sausage casings. Even though I have a list of places to try in Birmingham, I have a feeling that I’ll be paying a number of visits to the Super Oriental Market & Red Pearl. They may not be focused on any particular Chinese cuisine (e.g. Sichuan, Cantonese, Hunan), but if these two dishes are any indication, there are a number of delicious dishes just waiting to be tried.
Super Oriental Market & Red Pearl Restaurant
243 W Valley Ave, Homewood, AL 35209 // 205.945.9558