A little Szechuan pepper

Thursday lunch is a lovely space of time when I’m done with a compressed teaching week, and able to explore the exotic East of campus. Usually my lunch companion and I clear our respiratory tracts with bubbling stews at Tofu House. This Thursday, however, we felt like a change. A friend who knows Chinese cuisine and its local iterations had recommended Little Szechuan at Oak and Washington.

It was certainly a popular spot, I found when I sailed in from the bitter cold. A long line snaked to the buffet, and a waiter tried to entice me to join. The steam table looked rather Chinese-American, though – all deep-fried chicken squares sautéed with cornstarchy sauces. No, I said, making a peremptory decision to forgo instant gratification for quality food. Let’s order from the menu. Some pork dumplings tided us over while a frazzled waitstaff of three ran around the large (and not particularly cosy) room. They were acceptable stomach-liners.

For lunch proper, I had decided in advance to order Twice-Cooked Pork Belly, in loving memory of Dynasty Chinese restaurant on 110th and Broadway. But my friend’s choice of Chilli Fish inspired me to turn adventurous, and I pointed to the picture of a fish stew with Szechuan peppercorns on the menu. It looked plain, but sounded interesting. It was to be a while before I uncovered the mystery. My friend’s fish arrived first, a giant plate of white fish (walleye?) with nice slices of red and green chilli peppers and a judicious drizzle of spicy sauce. Since the portion was plentiful, and I was hungry, I stole a bit and was very happy with my theft. The balance of bland fish and hot accents was lovely. Indeed, I even told the waitress not to worry about bringing my delayed dish if it had not already been cooked. But in keeping with Murphy’s Law, my order appeared moments later.

The fish stew looked every bit as bland as its menu picture, but was full of delicate flavor from the peppercorns and good broth. Tiny bunches of bokchoy and slices of jalapeno added welcome diversions. I asked also for chilli sauce, which turned out to be a coarse grind of mild red chilli and Szechuan peppers. Thus spiked and perked up, the fish offered as much winter comfort as any flashy red Korean stew. Moreover, the portions were giant (in keeping with higher prices) and each of us took back a healthy box of leftovers. I smiled in condescending pity at folks waiting in the long buffet line on my way out – they knew not what they missed. But at least the waiters got a break.

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