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Sichuan Garden in Brookline, MA: Is Great Sichuan Food Without Sichuan Peppercorns Possible?
295 Washington St., Brookline, MA; map); Sichuangarden2.com
Service: Hit or miss. Sometimes warm and friendly, sometimes rude, with no English.
Setting: Clean interior with an attempt at being fancy with white tablecloths, though somewhat run down.
Compare It To: Chili Garden in Medford or FuLoon in Malden
Must-Haves: Ox Meat and Tripe with Chili Vinaigrette, Cellophane Noodle with Minced Pork, Camphor Tea Smoked Duck, Chongqing Chicken
Cost: Moderate. Possible to get lunch for under $10, but expect to pay more for the good stuff.
Grade: B. Bring your own Sichuan peppercorns to pull it up to an A
The problem with most Sichuan restaurants is that they don't use Sichuan Peppercorns, the small seeds of a variety of Asian pine tree. Up until a few year ago, this was necessitated by law—there was a restriction on their import due to fears of contamination of citrus canker, a bacterial infection that affects citrus trees. The ban was finally lifted in 2005, and the aromatic spice has slowly been infiltrating the U.S. foodscape ever since.
How important could a single spice be to a cuisine, you ask? Very. The Sichuan peppercorn is not hot at all in the conventional sense. Rather, it is extremely floral and aromatic with a unique tongue-numbing ability. Coupled with copious amounts of hot chili peppers, it forms the backbone of countless Sichuan specialties referred to as ma-la, or "numbing hot." The chilies burn your tongue, while the Sichuan peppercorn relives it, like novocaine.
Unfortunately, the list of restaurants that have already reincorporated Sichuan peppercorns on their menu don't necessarily line up with the list of restaurants serving the best Sichuan food. Case in point: Sichuan Garden in Brookline, Mass.. While at first glance it looks like any other mid-range Chinese restaurant, complete with goldfish tank, electric fountains, fortune cookies, and $7.95 lunch special menu, a quick glance at the Chef's specialties reveals that it's one of the most authentic Sichuan spots around. Save for one thing: they don't use any Sichuan peppercorns.
Instead, the chef compensates by rejiggering the balance of flavors in some classics like Hot & Dry Chicken and Mapo Dofu, toning down the chili heat slightly and upping the sweetness. The result is a cuisine that's not necessarily authentic, but extraordinarily delicious in its own right. It's also a mecca for chili heads.
The first thing to note is that when you enter for lunch, you'll be handed a lunch menu. Turn it down and ask for the real menu. When they then hand you the dinner menu, keep it, then ask for the real real menu—a single laminated page which contains most of the Sichuan specialties. This page, coupled with the first half of the appetizer section and the Chef's Specialties off the dinner menu, are the only items you should consider ordering. The rest is all filler, there only to placate those looking for beef with broccoli or a General Tso's fix.
The first bite of the Chengdu Red Rabbit ($7.95) off the special menu was appealingly warm and juicy with an intensely salty and slightly smokey flavor enhanced by the large pile of dry toasted chili flakes they provide for dipping. But a few bites, in I noticed a couple of chunks with still-frozen cores. A sure indication that they freeze these and defrost to order. I have nothing against frozen defrosted food when it doesn't equate to a loss in quality (and the good pieces in this dish indicate that when properly defrosted and heated, the quality can be excellent), but c'mon—frozen meat?
Luckily, this has only happened once out of the myriad times I've ordered this dish.
The best of the various appetizers that feature their excellent Sichuan-style roasted chili vinaigrette (others include the Sichuan wontons, the Special Flavor Chicken, or the Rabbit with Roasted Chili Vinaigrette) is the Ox Meat and Tripe ($7.95). The ox meat is riddled with bits of chewy tendon rendered tender by the ultra-thin slicing, while the tripe is the cleanest, crispest tripe I've had anywhere. I'd almost describe it as refreshing, the way it cools your tongue and snaps between your teeth. Though doused in chili oil, it's not overwhelmingly strong, and the vinaigrette has a deep, roasty complexity with a touch of sweetness accented by the fresh notes of the chopped cilantro and scallions. Without a smattering of Sichuan peppercorns, it's tough to call this dish authentic, but by toning down the heat and upping the sweetness a bit, it's still quite well balanced.
This here is what Sichuan food is all about: a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
Other favorite appetizers: the Cellophane Noodles with Minced Pork ($10.50), which must have a heat capacity of several million kilojoules. It stays blindingly hot (both temperature-wise and on the Scoville scale) even after being delivered in a take-out box and consumed a full hour after ordering. The Green Bean Tofu with Roasted Chili Vinaigrette ($5.95) has to be ordered to be understood. It's similar in appearance to tofu, but has a much springier, almost crisp texture. The Dan Dan noodles with Minced Pork Chilli Vinaigrette ($4.75) is about as good a version of this classic Sichuan dish as you can get without Sichuan peppercorns. The toothsome noodles come Day-Glo red, virtually swimming in a bath of hot chili oil.
The most successful main courses on the menu are the classics that don't necessarily rely on Sichuan peppercorns for their numbing qualities. I'm talking pork-belly based dishes like the Double-Cooked Fresh Bacon ($10.95), the yardstick of a good Sichuan restaurant. The thin slices of pork belly are first boiled, then stir-fried with hot Chinese long green peppers. Even better is the Sichuan Style Bacon ($13.95) off of the special menu, which features the same pork belly and hot green pepper mix, but this time the pork belly is first wok-smoked with camphor and tea. It's juicy, fatty, smoky, salty, and altogether excellent.
Another peppercorn-free choice is the Camphor Tea Smoked Duck ($15.95). Intensely aromatic and insanely juicy, the skin is expertly roasted to a crackling crisp finish.
Moving on to the classic dishes that do traditionally use copious amounts of Sichuan pepper, things are a bit more hit or miss. Chef's Ma Paul Tofu with Minced Beef ($9.95) is a better-than-average version of my all-time favorite dish, but is a little heavy on corn starch, and doesn't quite hack it without the peppercorn aroma (head to FuLoon in Malden for the ultimate version of the dish). The Braised Beef Filets & Napa Cabbage with Roasted Chili ($12.95) suffers from the same lack of authenticity, though it fares better in translation than the tofu. The tender slices of beef are slippery as velvet and come swimming in a rich chili broth with Chinese celery and Napa cabbage.
The Chengdu Dry Hot Chicken ($12.95) borders on unbearably hot, but if you can really handle the heat, opt instead for the Chongqing chicken ($13.95) off of the special menu. It's the same dish of battered and fried chicken pieces tossed with hot dry chilis, but with the heat upped by a factor of ten. Like the appetizers, it's not just a one-note tongue-searing affair. The fiery chili bits offer an extraordinary complexity and balance with a touch of sweetness, and deep roasted aromas. Popcorn chicken from hell.
It'd be wonderful if Sichuan Garden would pull itself out of the 90's, get with the program, and start using real Sichuan peppercorns, but for now, I'm happy that they do pretty much everything else right. Maybe next time I'll bring my own.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.