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Lung Heat

Excavating Peppercorns in Flushing

Scott extracted four from the pot, lined them up on the edge of the plate, then popped them into his mouth one after another. Soon a flush spread across his face and he grabbed for his water glass. "Just a sec—try tea instead," someone blurted out. We were gathered at Sichuan Dynasty, a new restaurant on Flushing's lively 40th Road, trying to analyze the pharmacological effects of Zanthoxylum piperitum, the Sichuan peppercorn. It's technically not a peppercorn at all, but the dried berry of the prickly ash tree. Though the spice has a distinctive lemony and woodsy odor, the effect on the mouth is more remarkable—causing not so much a burning of the mucous membranes as an alarming metallic tingle. And drinking cold water only intensifies the effect, like throwing kerosene on a fire. We'd dredged our experimental peppercorns out of a dish innocently called "rabbit stew meat" ($14.95), an earthen pot bubbling with oil in which bony pieces of bunny vied with red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns for dominance. That the dish was searingly hot goes without saying, and the glorious contribution of the peppercorns was central to the appeal, attenuated only by masses of cooling green foliage that cowered in the bottom of the pot.

In spite of a love affair with the cuisine that goes back decades, New York has probably never had a true Sichuan restaurant. Those that first materialized in Chinatown 30 years ago were geared to Western tastes, stanching the burn by deploying only a modest quantity of chiles and eschewing peppercorns entirely. Though the Wu Liang Ye and Grand Sichuan chains have recently repopularized Sichuan food in Manhattan, the spicing is still restrained, and the menu's larded with all sorts of dishes that don't belong. And most of the Sichuan places in Flushing—including the now defunct and much lamented Spicy and Tasty—alter the cooking for Taiwanese tastes.

With its shifting use of multiple chiles, hurricane of garlic, intemperate admiration of fat, deployment of oddball ingredients, and emphasis on variety meats and animals more likely to be caught in a trap than purchased at the supermarket, Sichuan Dynasty is our most authentic yet. Rather confusingly, the restaurant has two menus. The first offers a family-style banquet of three dishes from a list of 59 with rice for an amazing $16.95, in line with a merchandising fad that has swept Queens Chinese restaurants. Though you can have a fine budget meal this way (ma po bean curd, sliced lamb with peppercorns, and chicken with three spicy peppers are recommended), much of the wilder stuff is on the Chinese-only menu, which you, the nonspeaker of Chinese, may access only by picking up the carryout menu at the door.

Some like it hot: chicken with crushed peppers at Sichuan Dynasty.
photo: Tara Engberg
Some like it hot: chicken with crushed peppers at Sichuan Dynasty.

Details

Sichuan Dynasty
135-32 40th Road,
Queens,
718-961-7500.
Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible with assistance.

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There you will find one of four variations of dan-dan noodles called chuanbei cold noodles ($4.25). Named after a medicinal bulb of the lily family native to Sichuan, used to remedy "lung heat," the noodles are thick, irregular, wobbly, and ghostly white. The cold broth mixes rice wine vinegar with garlic, green onion, and thick soy sauce, creating a loamy barnyard flavor like nothing you've tasted before. Though you've probably tried ma po bean curd dozens of times, the dish as interpreted by Sichuan Dynasty is a revelation, depending on a thick fermented bean paste called doubanjiang. The same sauce reappears in whole fish with hot bean sauce ($15.95), but be forewarned that the whole- fish preparations tend to be ho-hum compared to the rest of the menu.

And don't forget to tell the waiters that you want the food very spicy. Otherwise, you might as well be eating at one of those bland Upper West Side "Szechuan" joints.

 
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