Review: 168 Asian Mart isn't just lucky — it's tasty 

click to enlarge Stir-fried eggplant with XO sauce.

Tom Perkins

Stir-fried eggplant with XO sauce.

You don't go to the food court at 168 Asian Mart for a date night. Not unless your date likes plastic spoons, tiny napkins, Styrofoam dinnerware, and fluorescent lights.

But maybe your date loves real Chinese food, cares about your pocketbook, and gets excited about leftovers. In that case, go for it.

Billing itself "Michigan's largest Asian market," 168, named for luck, is mostly a supermarket, with live fish and seafood, a bakery, a smoothie booth, 38 aisles, and an array of foods so vast — many of them instant or prepared — that it would take this whole review to enumerate a tenth of them. I can't resist just a few — satay, kung pao, plum, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and more brands of soy sauce than you knew existed. There are gingko nuts, ya pear, fragrant pear, Korean melon, and frozen Thai golden durian kept in a closed case because of its shocking odor. There's also fried wheat gluten in a jar, Spam and Cheezee spread for the Filipinos, 40-pound bags of shirakiku rice, Hello Kitty "French" cookies, bubble tea mix, sake and plum wine, and the ultra-specific crab roe-flavored broad beans with a dreamy guy on the package.

In the back, there's a food court with a dozen tables. A Chinese guy I talked to said he eats there once per week (he was dateless). You order from close to 50 numbered dishes with names in English and Chinese, listed above the counter — those with an "S" are spicy.

You can buy something to drink in the grocery and bring it into the food court where your options are free lemon water from a thermos, or lukewarm tea-bag tea.

I found the dishes, which come from different regions, variable in quality but all real Chinese food, not the American version. Pork is close to a constant, added to dishes that don't have it in their names.

That goes for one of my Cantonese favorites, stir-fried eggplant with XO sauce (and ground pork). XO sauce involves dried fish and shrimp, chili peppers, onions, and garlic, and it can improve any dish that was going to be bland. In an umami-rich dish like eggplant, it created an almost maple flavor. (When I went to reheat the eggplant a few days later, it had turned an arresting shade of blue, but no problems arose.) Also delicious was a big fried leek dumpling, with a biting flavor.

We ordered pork dumplings, eight for $5.99, which are gray on the outside and a tender pink within. The exterior had the right rubbery consistency that gives this treat such an enjoyable mouth feel.

My biggest disappointment was the dish that actually inspired me to go to 168: cumin lamb. In the hands of Mission Chinese in New York, this is sublime. At 168, the lamb was tough and not very lamb-y, and the cumin peeked through only occasionally. It was cooked with Chinese prickly ash, though, those cylindrical red peppers that burn the lips so nicely.

You know how a smell or a taste can transport you instantly to another time? (A guy named Proust wrote about this.) That happened to me with much-anticipated, bony oxtail soup — its flavor took me back to childhood. I wish I could pin down what exactly it was about that soup — I mean, no one ate oxtails in West Virginia. The 168 oxtails weren't rich and fatty like Jamaican ones. The soup was heavy on thick noodles, celery, and brown cremini mushrooms.

We had better luck with duck, both in a soup and with noodles, and bok choy. Next door to the food court you can buy a whole or half duck, hacked into chunks that appear random, and assure you'll find a bone in every piece. The crisp skin is of course fatty but somewhat caramelized — a treat. That stall also sells a whole roast pig for $168.88 (lucky number!).

Also good is the giant Chinese crepe, which my food court neighbor said was a north China tradition. The server said it contained egg and sausage — dear reader, that sausage turned out to be a wiener. I liked it still because of the sweet-ish "fried bread" also folded into the dosa-like crepe.

The "hot-spicy" rice noodle is loaded with peanuts and bok choy, and "mild plus" was plenty hot for me. "Seafood-tofu soup" is just one hot flavor but it contains a perfect poached egg.

Other possibilities at the food court are fresh-made soy milk and a tray of crawfish. An idea that looks fun is to order a hotpot. Choose the meats and vegetables you want to go in it, and the kitchen will cook it for you right there; pay by the pound.

Be sure to leave time to wander the store and buy something you ordinarily wouldn't.

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