Last summer DNAinfo ran a short item about Sze Chuan Cuisine, the latest of many newer Chinatown restaurants specializing in the food of China's southwestern Sichuan province, known primarily for the dual sensations of ma and la—respectively, the electric charge of the seeds and pods of the prickly ash tree and the blaze of chiles. Given the Sichuanese proliferation—thanks to an increasingly diverse influx of Chinese expats over the last half-dozen or so years—at first glance the news didn't seem that earth-shattering. You could even say it was discouraging: the article paraphrased owner Andy Luo as saying that at his new place, the "region's traditionally fiery dishes are tamped down to please all palates, traditionalists and newcomers alike."
So I put the place off, imagining that its ostentatious, casinolike facade fronted a restaurant that was tamping down exactly what makes eating Sichuanese food such a holistically thrilling experience. I should have paid less attention to appearances and more attention to the crowds gravitating to the lonely southern end of Wentworth Avenue, until then home to mostly Cantonese/Mandarin warhorses like Evergreen and House of Fortune.
In 2007 the late, great Double Li set a new standard for Chinatown, besting the beloved but increasingly compromised Lao Sze Chuan with the aggressively seasoned cuisine of owner Ben Li's hometown of Chongqing. I came to measure every new Sichuanese restaurant against it, but I realize now that such comparisons are about as useful as stacking a Sicilian restaurant against a Roman one: Sze Chuan Cuisine specializes not in the cooking of Chongqing but in that of Chengdu, Sichuan's largest city and its gastronomic capital. Genteel and conservative, according to the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, Chengdu maintains a culinary rivalry with sweltering, humid Chongqing, where the food is more brash, spicy, and innovative.
"Chongqingers traditionally look down on the people of Chengdu for being lazy and out-of-date in their eating habits," Dunlop writes in Land of Plenty, the English-language bible for Sichuanese food. "The inhabitants of Chengdu habitually retort that while Chongqing people may know how to invent a good dish, their food is coarse and crude and needs the refining touch of Chengdu chefs before it can become really great cuisine."
I don't have a dog in this fight. But I do appreciate the approach Sze Chuan Cuisine takes. Eating Sichuanese can sometimes feel like a full-contact sport, the heat and thrum of ma la-saturated dishes spiking the heart rate, draining the sweat glands, and simultaneously dulling the senses, so each course eventually blends into the next, offering little opportunity to taste anything but a dish's most dominant forces. At Sze Chuan Cuisine the spice isn't "tamped down" so much as balanced. There's plenty of heat, but it's restrained enough that other forms of deliciousness are able to rise from the flames.
Take a look at the oversize menu. Beyond the vivid photographs and bizarrely spiritual non sequiturs—"Dry hot pot & sizzling plate. The divine and wonderful spirit condense," "Appetizer: Electric Dripping Food Color Boundless"—you'll find dozens of dishes you might have eaten in Chinatown before, like fried lamb with cumin (listed in the "cattle" section). Here it's not the usual dry-fried plate of gnarly lamb shreds with chiles and whole cumin, but rather silky slices in a sauce that somehow amplifies the cumin in the dish. Spicy chicken in the Chongqing style—originating with Chengdu's rival, in other words—will be familiar to anyone who's tried any variation of Tony Hu's signature Three Chili Chicken. The same small nuggets of hard-fried bird bits, tossed with brilliant red dried chiles, offer none of the occasionally cloying sweetness you might have regretted elsewhere—just a steady nine-volt charge running across your tongue.
Ruddy Chengdu dumplings are showered in raw minced garlic and bathed in a puddle of lavalike red oil, nearly shocking, relative to its appearance, in its mild sweetness. You can almost stand a chopstick up in the ma po tofu, thick with jiggling bean curd; the ma is at the forefront of this dish, allowing the ample ground pork to assert its own flavor. Bites of bone-in duckling mingle with chewy taro noodles, while a whole fried tilapia flounders in a roiling brew of oil, chiles, bean sprouts, and tofu skin.
The sort of Chengdu refinement Dunlop refers to is especially evident in cold appetizers like spicy beef tendon—a pile of snappy, nearly transparent tissue, glazed lightly with red oil—or fu qi fei pian, an organ trio of shaved beef maw, tripe, and tendon, sprinkled with crushed peanuts.
But there are a great number of dishes that don't offer much ma la at all—and they're ideal antidotes to some of the more aggressively flavored options. Thick chunks of cold cucumber tossed with minced garlic and wrinkly strips of tofu skin, or a cloudy soup with tender slices of chicken breast and thick tofu noodles, emphasize texture over more confrontational flavors. Some dishes command attention simply for their appearance, such as the vividly orange "crab curd in soy bean flower": a soothing porridge of soft diced tofu, carrots, and peas, an invisible crab essence latent in its thick broth.
Nothing on the menu is more surprising than a dish on the very last page called "air dried beef." Unlovely in appearance, this pile of jerkylike shreds is nonetheless full of concentrated beefy, smoky—almost cheesy—flavor, making it particularly appropriate for nibbling along with one of the high-octane rice liquors lurking at the bottom of the page.
Like nearly every other restaurant in Chinatown, Sze Chuan Cuisine offers so many dishes that you could spend weeks trying to get through them all. But its variety and complexity prove that Sichuan food isn't strictly about the ma and la. Andy Luo just didn't want to scare you.
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly describe the terms ma and la.