Welcome to the land of “flower pepper” and “facing-heaven” chilies.
The two make up Sichuan’s spice signature, with the Sichuan “flower pepper” adding a mouth- and tongue-numbing feeling and the long, red, dried “facing-heaven” chilies adding heat.
Sichuan cuisine has a dry, numbing heat, which helps balance the body’s constitution against the dampness of the region. But it also offers an adventurous culinary experience full of bold flavors.
Famous Sichuan, on Pell Street in Chinatown, provides a gateway into the culinary world of Sichuan. There, four chefs from Sichuan, each with more than 30 years of cooking experience, ply their trade.
In winter, much of the business revolves around Sichuan hot pot, the highly social dish where diners dunk in pieces of meat, seafood, or vegetable into boiling broth, which is mild or spicy—or both, with a convenient split hot pot.
But there are also other Sichuan specialties well worth trying, which are marked by their complex cooking techniques.
We are first served a Sichuan-style cucumber salad ($5.95). The dressing is light, with sesame oil and scallion oil, and a little vinegar, and throughout the course of the meal, it is this dish we return to again and again, seeking refreshing relief for our palates.
A must-have is the Chong Qing spicy dry chicken ($13.95). Small morsels of tender dark-meat chicken arrive, with golden slivers of garlic, sesame seeds, and a mass of glistening dried red chilies. And, hidden throughout the dish, the little numbing bombs of Sichuan pepper. Not to worry, though, the chilies are there to infuse the dish with flavor, and you have to pick around them and find the savory, delicious pieces of chicken.
It’s easy to unexpectedly bite into a morsel of Sichuan pepper. It’s not so much a flavor sensation as a sudden burst of tingling, and then a numbing feeling overtaking the mouth.
The key to making the dish is to use, as chef Li Quan said, a big hot fire. For the rest, he’s guided by his nose. The release of aromas guides him to each following step. Even with the little chili landmines in there, the dish was addictive, and we wiped the plate clean save for the red chilies.
Another excellent dish is one I first balked at because of its name: boiled live fish with chili sauce ($25.95). It doesn’t involve live fish being thrown into the soup pot, but the name is meant to signify that the fish is fresh, maybe scooped up from the fish tanks just moments before being cleaned and cooked.
When the soup arrives, the surface is covered with red chilies. The dark brown broth is flecked with orange-colored oil. Just beneath are bean sprouts, cabbage, and pieces of tilapia, and again, ubiquitous bits of Sichuan pepper.
The flavor is deep, most enjoyable, with no hint of fishiness whatsoever. Was it spicy? Only mildly so, with the last-minute addition of chilies on top.
Sichuan specialties, despite the fearsome reputation of their chilies and pepper, aren’t all about heat.
The smoked pork with sour string beans ($12.95) was unique. Long beans are steeped in water and spices for three days, developed a pleasant sour tang, then cut up into tiny pieces and served with smoked pork, which tasted very much like bacon.
I tried the tea-smoked duck ($18.95), which takes three days to make. The duck is marinated, smoked over tea leaves to absorb its aromas, steamed, and then lightly fried to make the skin crispy.
There were also regular favorites like ox tripe with chili sauce ($8.95) and spicy double cooked pork ($12.95). To accommodate a range of heat tolerance, Famous Sichuan can make any dish mild or spicy.
Out of all of them, though, the Chong Qing spicy dry chicken and the fish soup were our unanimous favorites. Was it because of the glistening red chilies and the potent Sichuan pepper? Centuries of cooks who used this singular, fascinating combination can’t be wrong.
10 Pell Street
Daily: 11 a.m.–11 p.m.