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Yan Bang Cai: Eating in the salt mines

A new Chinatown restaurant features the food of Sichuan Province's salt city.



Earlier this spring devotees of the skull-buzzing flavors of China's Sichuan province were dealt a nasty surprise when it was discovered that Ben Li and Wan Cai Li, partners in Chinatown's great Double Li, had abruptly abandoned their dark, claustrophobic Cermak Road restaurant to open 8000 Miles, a Chinese-Japanese fusion joint that might as well be halfway across the planet. Ben Li's black pepper beef is great, but traveling to far-west-suburban Roselle for it would be like flying to Beijing—hardly worth the effort, considering only five more of his Sichuanese dishes made it on the menu, which also features sushi, pad thai, and General Tso's chicken.

This is a major departure. Since opening in late 2006 with an initial surge from ravenous expat students, Double Li had been the only acceptable alternative to the hegemony of Tony Hu's venerable Lao Sze Chuan, which is prone to consistency problems and has a staff that occasionally assumes non-Chinese customers can't handle real Sichuanese food.

It was Double Li that gave Chicago its first taste of regional Sichuanese eating. The food of the southwestern province is one of China's eight great cuisines, but it can be divided into "factions," as one travel website puts it. For instance, the Li partners (they're unrelated) hailed from Chongqing, the province's second-largest city, and were ambassadors for its extraordinarily spicy food, meant to counteract its hot, humid temperatures.

Sichuanese options have proliferated in Chinatown since Double Li's opening, perhaps diluting its once strong customer base. The consolation is that now another variant has moved in, serving the food of Zigong, Sichuan's third-largest city and an exemplar of the subregional cuisine known as Xiaohebang, characterized by molten boiled meat stews and a taste profile that is described variously as spicy, heavy, rich, and salty.

This last quality is certainly evident at Yan Bang Cai, both in taste and spirit, as the restaurant is thematically aligned with the Zigong salt mines that at one time made the city one of China's wealthiest. A framed cover of Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History hangs on the wall in case you don't get the point.

Yan Bang Cai's chef hails from Zigong, and like most in Chinatown his repertoire is vast. But it's easy to find the regional representations on his menu, in dishes tagged with the monikers "Salt Miner's," Salt Merchant's," or "Zigong style."

Among them, the boiled or "poached" dishes are most representative of Xiaohebang, and if you've frequented Lao Sze Chuan or Double Li they won't be unfamiliar to you. There are just more of them. Shreds of lamb, beef, fish, or pork are submerged in violently red, oily brews, along with vegetables such as cabbage and bean sprouts, dried red chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns.

They don't just look delicious, they look dangerous, like something you'd pour over the ramparts onto enemy soldiers. You could simply dump spoonfuls of this lava over your rice, but you're only going to make a mess of yourself and others. Instead, don't be shy about directly extracting delicate bits from the pot with your chopsticks and dropping them into your rice bowl, allowing the rice to sop up a bit of the liquid before moving the bite into your mouth.

These bowls may appear indistinguishable from each other, but there are differences. The Zigong-style poached spicy lamb contains chile flakes, while the Zigong-style spicy fish is loaded with whole dried red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns—and delivers with its richer, thicker broth the numbing, face-melting, ma la properties that in the proper doses can catalyze out-of-body experiences.

This electrifying hallmark of Sichuanese cuisine isn't as prevalent across the menu as it was at Double Li or is at Lao Sze Chuan, which might have been what a server meant when he described Zigong food to me as "flexible." It certainly isn't present in the Zigong Salt Miner's Beef Noodle, which is nonetheless worth ordering for the thick, chewy, pappardelle-like noodles, tender chunks of braised beef, and crunchy sections of Chinese celery.

You won't encounter it much either with the quick-fried seven-step duck: chunks of bone-in, tea-smoked bird stir-fried with julienned green and red bell peppers, a dish that tastes as if it were unearthed from a salt mine. And neither would you encounter it in a clear egg drop soup with soft slices of green luffa squash and wan tomatoes, or the dramatic "squirrel-shaped fish with two flavors." The latter hails from the southeastern city of Suzhou, and it's filleted so that its flesh resembles a bloomin' onion (or a squirrel's fur). After being immersed in batter and deep-fried, it's slathered in a duo of goopy, glutinous, and, yes, salty, sauces that quickly degrade whatever crispiness is imparted by the deep fryer.

I mention the fish only to underscore that even the dishes that aren't endemic to Zigong can taste oversalted. But then, what are you doing here if not exploring what this chef knows best? And there are plenty of terrific, assertively flavored dishes to be discovered, such as the Salt Miner's eggplant, thick batons of lightly fried aubergines, crunchy and slightly greasy. I ordered this dish on two occasions and it was presented differently each time; once tinged red with chile oil and tossed with Chinese celery and dried red chiles. The second time it was virtually naked. But on each occasion it was the best thing on the table.

Among the many cold dishes is a simple salad of fresh, bright green ze'er geng, or cold fish root, an herb more commonly found in Vietnamese cuisine, where its called diep cá, or fish mint. The reason for this is immediately apparent with the bite of a single leaf, which floods the mouth with a funk as deep as the Mariana Trench. The formidable task of balancing this dish is nicely accomplished with an assortment of other cold plates that can stand up to its intensity, namely bamboo matchsticks bathing in chile oil, or five-spice-dusted Sichuan green bean curd, or the bone-in Zigong-style spicy rabbit, glazed in a thick brown sauce loaded with enough tingly ma la energy to power a Corvette.

It would take weeks of dedicated eating to thoroughly explore the potential of this menu, and it's likely you'll encounter false leads without a swarm of hungry students in the dining room to lead by example. I know I did. There is a small section of five dishes written entirely in Chinese that a server said were Yan Bang Cai's signatures, including spicy pork served in a bamboo log and an egg soup. He told us that no one had ever ordered them before, but when we tried they were unavailable. I don't think that means Chinatown is so oversaturated with Sichuanese food that there isn't enough room for any more specialization. But I do think this particular faction deserves more attention than it's getting.

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