Anatomy of a Dish: General Tso’s Sweetbreads at Café Saint-Ex

Chef Billy Klein serves up an homage to his favorite Chinese takeout.

By: Anna Spiegel

The dish in question: General Tso's Sweetbreads by Billy Klein. Photograph by Erik Uecke

The Washington Post reports that Great Wall Szechuan House on 14th Street is getting a makeover to become “something more than a take-out,” providing diners more seating room to sample chef Yuan Chen’s fiery Szechuan cooking. But some of Great Wall’s neighbors, among them chef Billy Klein of Café Saint-Ex, are addicted to the Chinese-American fare that the foodies pass over for the more “authentic” menu. In fact, Klein has ordered the same thing at least once a week for the past ten years: General Tso’s Chicken.

“It’s delicious, hot, crispy, and always on point,” he says. “I don’t crave Chinese food. I crave that.”

Saint-Ex recently underwent its own facelift (actually, it was more like a subtle tummy tuck, since work was only done in the back kitchen). With the equipment upgrade, Klein is able to experiment more than ever, and he wanted to take the menu beyond roast chicken, but given the restaurant’s neighborhood bistro rep, he can’t stray too far. So to compromise, he married two of his favorite things to eat: sweetbreads, and General Tso’s. The result is crispy veal sweetbreads cloaked in a traditional Chinese-American Tso’s sauce that’s as close as Klein can get to his Great Wall favorite.

The chef tinkered with different measurements of hoisin, rice wine vinegar, soy, molasses, ginger, garlic, and Sriracha before hitting on a Great Wall–esque ratio. The rest is his own interpretation. Cooking the sweetbreads is a three-day process—cleaning, poaching, braising—that erases any offal gaminess. In lieu of deep-frying the calf bits, Klein sautés them until they’re crisp, then tosses them under a salamander for extra crunch. Whereas traditional Tso’s comes with broccoli and jasmine rice, Klein serves his with rapini and creamy carnaroli risotto cakes. The result may not taste exactly like the takeout from down the street, but they do pass Billy Klein’s ultimate culinary test.

“I got my father to eat them, which is impressive,” he says.