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Ma Po's Bean Curd at Classic Kitchen

It's no secret that the Taiwanese restaurant Classic Kitchen is a wonderful place for a Chinese-style breakfast, with a wide variety of buns, dumplings, pancakes, and snacky items, many of which, in China, are only available from street vendors and storefront takeaways. (Note that the breakfast part of the menu, identified as "Special Breakfast Snacks" in Chinese, is somewhat misleadingly called "Chinese Refreshments" in English.)

But how is Classic Kitchen the rest of the day? I've eaten there a handful of times in recent years, with varying results. On one visit, the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup, with tender braised beef and hand-cut noodles, was hearty, richly flavored, and overflowing with toothsome noodles. Another time, it was sorely underseasoned, and the accompanying dishes, eggplant with garlic sauce and stir-fried potato with pepper, were aggressively ordinary.

Last week, my wife had a wisdom tooth extracted at her dentist in Sterling Plaza, and while I waited for her, I decided to give Classic Kitchen another try -- it was only a couple doors down and had a prominently displayed "Lunch Special $2.95" sign in the window. What could go wrong?

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Sadly, the window ad is both misleading and inaccurate: the cheapest lunch special is $3.50, and that price only applies to two dishes; the rest range between $3.95 and $6.95. Yes, it's still cheap, just not $2.95 cheap. I ordered "Ma Po's Beancurd" (usually listed on Chinese menus as Ma Po Tofu), a classic Sichuan dish that has become standard fare at Chinese restaurants around the world. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, the dish (which literally means "Pockmarked old woman tofu") was originally named after the "smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing Dynasty restaurateur," who prepared it for laborers to eat quickly. It's soft tofu in a spicy, oily sauce, with chopped leeks and bits of ground beef, and a healthy dose of numbing Sichuan peppercorns.

At least, that's how it's supposed to taste; done right, Ma Po Tofu is fiery, filling homestyle cooking. Classic Kitchen's version was only one for two: soft tofu in a starchy brown sauce with a few green onions and smattering of ground meat. I couldn't taste any numbing flavor, and only sensed a faint spiciness at the back of my mouth.

The lunch special also comes with steamed rice, a middling deep-fried egg roll, and a small bowl of peppery chicken broth. I can't say I felt cheated, as I was out the door with a full stomach for $5, including tax and a 20 percent tip. But I wasn't exactly satisfied. If you're looking for a lunch special in Chinatown providing both value and flavor, I recommend Sichuan Cuisine.

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