Sweet Yummy House Serves Up Sichuan, Taiwanese-Style
Who could resist a restaurant called Sweet Yummy House? If you're a kid, that is. For me, the name conjures up gingerbread dwellings deep in the woods made by witches. Step inside, and you're the entrée. But Sweet Yummy doesn't try to lure you with desserts—in fact, it doesn't have any. Rather, it's one of the city's newer Sichuan restaurants, which have been multiplying lately in neighborhoods like Flushing, Midtown, and the Upper East Side. This one lies halfway out to Flushing along a bucolic stretch of Broadway, just south of the weed-choked LIRR overpass—Elmhurst's version of the Enchanted Forest.
The area has long been dominated by Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants. The arrival of a Sichuan place in their midst is proof of the growing popularity of the Chinese province's food among Asian immigrants. As with other tender-tongued New Yorkers, many residents of this neighborhood are just beginning to appreciate chiles for the first time. While there may be better Sichuan restaurants, it's worth visiting this one for the delicious peculiarities resulting from fusion with other cuisines, especially Taiwanese.
The small dining room has eight tables lined up along walls with faux-brick wainscoting. Wraparound mirrors create a funhouse effect, messing with your depth perception. In one corner, next to a glass case displaying the spicy cold salads essential to Sichuan cooking, stands a golden kitten, its fist raised in solidarity with chile lovers everywhere.
One thing you'll find at Sweet Yummy House is lots of lamb, a meat rarely seen in Elmhurst. There's the usual cumin-scented stir-fry of mutton ("lamb with chilies," $13.95), tasting uncannily Middle Eastern except for a dose of toasted red chiles that leave one's lips smarting and nose running. But sadly, the cook exercises too light a hand with the Sichuan peppercorns; I sorely missed the tingle. The mysterious-sounding "black lamb" is better, matching meat swatches with Chinese celery and black pepper for a nuanced pungency. It suggests what Sichuan cooking must have been like before the arrival of chiles in the province, which probably occurred late in the 16th century from Mexico via the Philippines, or maybe on the Silk Road from India.
For those who go for Sichuan peppercorns like a junkie reaching for his dime bag, the greatest concentration is to be found in the bland-sounding cold jelly Chengdu style ($6). Would the jelly come with toast, my crew and I wondered? Out sailed a bowl of wobbly translucent noodles of mung-bean starch. Chile oil and black vinegar pooled in the bottom of the bowl, and crushed Sichuan peppercorns paved every surface. Yee-Haw! Bean curd with spicy minced pork ($8.95) is the name given to ma po tofu here; tasting more of fermented bean paste than chile oil, it too flaunts a surfeit of the metallic-tasting, lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
As a salve for your burning membranes, there are several cooling dishes, including a garlicky salad of cucumbers in sesame oil ($5), and a steamed plate of so-called Taiwanese cabbage that bears more than a passing resemblance to damp cardboard. It seems to have no other purpose than soothing your mouth. The usual dish that performs that function in a Sichuan restaurant—tea-smoked duck—is not available at Sweet Yummy. Instead, there's a casserole with the intriguing name of beer duck. Skip it. The extensively stewed mallard proves bony and bland in the extreme—you might as well be eating an umbrella.
The restaurant favors organ meats more than almost any other Sichuan place in town. Here, you can have a splendid cold kidney salad ($6.50) laved with chile oil. (Don't worry, the filter organ has been cleaned of its pee taste.) Cheek-by-jowl with the kidney, the menu also lists tendon, tripe, stomach, and liver. Entirely unexpected on a Sichuan menu is a version of the famous Taiwanese standard three-cup chicken, in this case dubbed "chicken with ginger, basil." In a brazen display of neighborhood pride, the restaurant puts this emphatically non-Sichuan dish at No. 1 on its discount lunch menu.
The restaurant will surprise you with the use to which it puts scallion pancakes. Split horizontally, they're filled with fried eggs or perfumed beef to make nifty little sandwiches ($2 and $2.50, respectively). Normally, thick wedges of sesame bread would serve that purpose. It's this sort of creative substitution that makes Sweet Yummy a place worth traveling to, rather than singeing your mouth in, say, Midtown. Benefiting from all sorts of other Asian influences, the food displays that authentic Elmhurst terroir.
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