Scar Face

We'd forgotten all about "liquor ball" ($2.95) when it belatedly arrived, looking like a bowl of egg drop soup. The first sip was pleasantly befuddling—hot and sweet with a strong musky aftertaste, followed by an alcoholic jolt. The egg drops concealed pearls of gooey rice starch, every 10th one hot pink. We passed the bowl around, shaking our heads in disbelief, sipping it like a French digestif. Half the table loved it, the other half thought it was disgusting.

The proliferating Grand Sichuan chain has repopularized Sichuan in New York, and its evocation of this powerfully flavored cuisine is indeed impressive. Nevertheless, Spicy & Tasty makes the chain seem prissy by comparison. It doesn't give a fig for fussy plate arrangements, and the massive heaps of food delivered to the table are not only consistently red-hot, but complexly flavored with spice combinations that include dried and fresh chiles, rice wine vinegar, Sichuan and black peppercorns, fish sauce, spring onions, leek tops, ginger, and, of course, stupefying quantities of garlic. In contrast to the often spectacular food, the premises of Spicy & Tasty are inauspicious, attained by a hike down a concrete stairway with peeling metal railings to a seedy strip-mall facade illuminated by a foamy neon beer stein. Yet after nine o'clock each evening Chinese customers stream in, packing the place until long after midnight.

It's hard to avoid sliced meat as a first course, nor would you want to. The tongue appetizer ($4.95) is a mountain of shaved meat doused with incendiary scarlet oil, shredded green onions, and matchsticks of ginger. Even tongue haters suck it down. You can substitute beef tendon, conch, pork, kidneys, or honeycomb tripe, awash in the same red oil. Another good choice is pulled chicken, which comes in a gorgeous reddish-brown sesame gravy that packs quite a wallop, in pleasant contrast to the cool temperature of the poultry. Fans might not recognize dan-dan noodles ($2.95), a diminutive bowl of pasta that looks like overcooked spaghetti topped by a pile of dry ground meat. But there's a fiery lake of sauce underneath, spiked with chewy bits of pickled mustard green.

The action is red-hot at Spicy & Tasty.
photo: Tania Savayan
The action is red-hot at Spicy & Tasty.

Those who avoid red meat will consider the restaurant a disaster area. Ostensibly meatless dishes often contain bits of ground pork as additional seasoning, like Cheng Du shrimp—deveined but shells-on crustaceans (crunch, crunch) heaped with a rainbow of tiny pickled peppers. Only the Portuguese are better at crazy meat-seafood combos. And pity the vegetarian who selects ma-po bean curd ($6.95), only to find the tofu foundering in a pungent brown sauce that might have been inspired by French ragout. The dish, which translates as "crater face," is especially esteemed in the Sichuan capital of Cheng Du, where it was invented a century ago by a stall keeper named Mrs. Chen, whose visage was extensively scarred by a childhood bout of smallpox.

As a friend observed, anything made with beef is a good bet, and best of all is shredded beef Sichuan-style ($9.95). The tendrils of meat have been stir-fried to a dry, concentrated beefiness, along with spikes of Chinese celery and enough dried pepper pods to start your own spice store. But many Sichuan dishes on the menu aren't so spicy, such as the tea-smoked duck and a kin-ghou squash ($7.95) dotted with funky dried shrimp. Still other selections are entirely non-Sichuan, like Mandarin taro duck ($12.95), an architectural triumph of purplish mashed tuber stuffed between skin and flesh and fried like a toasted cheese sandwich. Taiwanese concoctions also dot the menu, some flaunting surprise Japanese ingredients like miso and wasabi, lending a certain culinary surrealism to the downstairs premises. And then, of course, there's the mysterious liquor ball . . .

 
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