Hot Chile Love


A little over a year ago, I reviewed an unusual Sichuan restaurant aimed at Taiwanese patrons. Spicy & Tasty was located on the outskirts of Flushing’s Chinatown, a walk-down establishment in a seedy strip mall with not much in the way of signage. As the name suggested, the menu was spicy, almost unbelievably so, including many items in which bright red chile oil, fresh green chiles, dried chile flakes, and Sichuan peppercorns ganged up all in a single dish, producing the glossopharyngeal equivalent of a nuclear meltdown. To anyone who would listen, I declared it the best Sichuan restaurant in the city, perhaps in the galaxy. Alas, the dining room was often filled with chain-smoking poker players. One Sunday afternoon I sailed in with a chile-loving mob, only to discover the place boarded up. We wondered if there had been a gambling raid.

Flash forward six months. I received an excited e-mail saying a place named Spicy & Tasty had just opened on Flushing’s Prince Street. I rounded up the old crew, and we arrived, tires screeching, to find a newly constructed row of marble-fronted stores. What we saw through the window made us gasp: overstuffed brocade chairs, walls with polished-stone wainscoting, and museum-style glass cases displaying antique culinary implements. It was as if a sharecropper’s shack had been transformed into the Palace at Versailles. Commanding the most attention right in the front window was a gleaming installation—like a steam table with no heat—filled with fixings for the zingy appetizers that remain the restaurant’s forte.

There were neat stacks of slender Chinese eggplants quartered lengthwise, de-seeded cukes cut into half-moons, accretions of steamed seaweed, heaps of honeycomb tripe, thin-shaved pork belly, tangles of baby eel, and two dozen other luscious ingredients. Our favorites on that first visit, ranging in price from $3.95 to $5.95, were the poetic-sounding bamboo shoots in aromatic oil, Chinese eggplant wadded with a mysterious green relish, and beef tripe in hot pepper sauce. Not limited to stomach, the tripe also featured thin-sliced tendon and connective tissue, often attached to tender fragments of meat. More important, the recipe sported enough Sichuan peppercorns to be an effective substitute for novocaine.

One can waste a lot of time trying to distinguish between dishes on the menu with overlapping names like shredded beef with spicy pepper, shredded beef with spicy sauce, beef in red chile sauce, and beef in BBQ sauce. Be assured they all contain vast quantities of chile and peppercorn, and they’re all hot as hell. It might be useful to cite a couple of recipes that depart from the swimming-in-red-oil formula. Lamb Szechuan style ($10.95) deposits gobbets of bone, meat, and fat in a delicious brick-red broth, brought to the table boiling in a device called a wu-ching burner that looks like a small yacht. The apparently contradictory “mild spicy chicken Szechuan style” ($8.95) is dry cooked so that it’s not drowning in scarlet oil. The “mild” part probably refers to the omission of Sichuan peppercorns, though the dish is still quite spicy.

With your mouth on fire, you’ll find yourself looking longingly at the non-spicy stuff. The smoked tea duck ($9.95) is certified chile-free, the crispy slices smokier than most New York barbecue. Even better is bitter melon ($6.95), a generous plate of bright green swatches dotted with ground pork for extra flavor. And you’ll enjoy the quinine-induced bitterness—perfect balm for a burning mouth.