Sichuanese Serendipity

I was walking with a friend down 9th Avenue one day, latitude of Chelsea, and we were looking for a place to grab a quick-ish bite before going to a gallery opening.  Not exactly a typical scenario for me, or at least the location and post-eating activity weren’t, so I was at a loss as to where to go.  Not content to merely find a diner, we eventually wandered down to 24th St. and ran smack dab into a Grand Sichuan.

I had heard decent things about Grand Sichuan from and, given that my dining partner was amenable, decided to try it out.  As it turns out, this was a fairly fortuitous decision – Grand Sichuan, while perhaps not the pinnacle of the art of Sichuan cooking, re-awakened my long-dormant passion for Chinese cooking, and I owe it a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Yesterday night’s circumstances (tried to go get onion strings at RUB, discovered it was closed Monday, didn’t feel like walking the other direction on 23rd to Shake Shack or Eisenberg’s) dictated a return visit to the Chelsea location, after several visits to the new St. Marks Pl. location which could best be described as ‘uneven.’  To my great surprise, at 7 PM, the place was packed, and we waited around five minutes for a table.

Once seated, the service was quick, naturally.  My dining partner ordered chicken with sour cabbage, which seemed to me to be a very flavorful chicken and cabbage soup that lacked soup.  Or, more accurately, had the soup portion reduced to a sauce/glaze, but retained a powerful “chicken stock” flavor.  I liked it, and despite the meat and cabbage being somewhat bland, it provided a nice counterbalance to the fiery concoction that I ordered.

A little more background is in order: upon discovering that I quite enjoyed what Grand Sichuan had to offer, I did some additional research on with regards to it and other Sichuanese, specifically Spicy & Tasty, Sietsema’s 10th pick on his 2005 list (though I figure maybe he actually liked it better and was hiding it – the list screwed up the address, which is actually not 39-07 Prince Street but next to Sentosa in the 37 block).  What I found seemed to confirm that dishes made with the spice arrangement called “ma la” were the thing to aim for.

“Ma la” describes two different kinds of spiciness.  The first character, “ma,” refers to the spice properties of the Sichuanese peppercorn.  More information about the peppercorn can be found here, particularly if you scroll down a bit (note that the blurb about it being illegal to import is, at this moment, incorrect).  Ma cuisine’s most distinctive characteristic is a kind of numbing effect completely different from the usual chiles.  La, on the other hand, refers to the more standard chile-based heat.  Combining the two leads, ideally, to a kind of multi-spice nirvana – the peppercorns numb you, the chiles heat you, and your face starts to sweat profusely.

Back to the fiery concoction: I had sampled some of the most divinely spiced ma la pork in chile sauce at Spicy and Tasty on my trip there (more on that in a future article), and wondered aloud to my waitress whether Grand Sichuan had anything that was “ma la” in a beef category.  She suggested the beef in chile sauce, which I can’t find on the menu described exactly so, but it could be the braised beef filets with chili sauce (both beef and chicken dishes had the kind of tenderized meat that I’ve come to expect from braising).

Anyway, what was delivered was EXACTLY like the pork dish I’d had in Flushing, except for a crucial detail: the Sichuan peppercorns weren’t right.  No numbing effect, sadly.  I’m guessing they either gringo-ized it (given that I specifically asked for ma la, seems less likely) or perhaps just don’t have the real peppercorns in inventory.  No matter – the dish was good anyway, extremely spicy with its chiles, and the cabbage underneath soaked up the red sauce in a pleasing manner.  The meat, as I said, was very tender, and there was more than enough of it to fill me up.

As far as the other dishes I’ve tried, the soup dumplings (crab and pork, definitely, if you have a choice) that we opened the meal with were also extremely good.  On my first trip, I sampled the chicken with broccoli from the American Chinese menu (I didn’t order it, I promise), and it was as delicious as I’d ever tasted the old warhorse.  The “Mao’s home cooking” menu provided the entrée that started the whole revolution for me – sour string beans with minced pork (ironic, because this is actually Hunanese, not Sichuan) – and the beans and pork combined to make a spicy and flavorful dish that I could have probably eaten more than a single plate of.

I’ve had other things at the St. Marks branch of Grand Sichuan, but I can’t really recommend that location as strenuously due to the inconsistency – on one trip, the dumplings were limp and the tea-smoked duck a little too dry.  On another excursion, the house special tofu was good, and enough to feed four people, I’m convinced.  I’d say that a good rule of thumb for that location is that the food will be better on the busier nights.

If you skipped the soup dumplings, a check including two entrees would typically cost less than $20 total.  A splurge, I realize, for the budget conscious parties of two among you – particularly factoring in tax and tip, if you eat in (I can see takeout being an effective option if you live nearby).  I’m of the opinion that two entrees could feed three, though.  And, of course, you’ll save money by drinking the free tea instead of coffee or coca-cola, and the very juicy orange slices at the end are better than no dessert at all, right?  Even if they do remind you of post-game snacks from your Under-8 bunch ball soccer years.

Given its convenience – i.e. it’s not located in Flushing – and the quality of the preparation of the food, if not the 100% authenticity of the spicing, Grand Sichuan is a great option for satisfying those spontaneous urges for Chinese food.  Take a handkerchief, though.

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