The best Sichuan food in town isn’t to be found in a Flushing food court, and you won’t stumble on it in Sunset Park, either. Hidden in a neighborhood where you’d never expect to see anything more exotic than a chop suey parlor, Bamboo Pavilion is located on Bensonhurst’s 18th Avenue, a thoroughfare long known for its Sicilian focaccerias, marzipan bakeries, and importers of Italian crockery. Now, with the Chinese bakeries, bubble tea parlors, and duck shops, the street seems poised to become the city’s sixth Chinatown, though one more affluent than the previous five.
The restaurant’s patrons are mainly Chinese, composed of families who sit around bubbling hot pots on weekend afternoons, the children gamboling about as their parents enjoy the northern Chinese and Cantonese fare that the restaurant peddles. Bamboo Pavilion is shaped like a lowercase “d,” with large tables that can accommodate 10 or more; kitschy décor is held to a minimum. The staff speaks excellent English, though that won’t help you disentangle the welter of menus that the waitress tosses on the table.
“How about duck tongues?” an adventurous friend requested, licking his chops and pointing at a color picture. “Unfortunately, we’re not hot-potting this evening,” I replied waggishly, “and mallard tongues are only on the hot-pot menu.” I dug deeper into the pile and pulled out a spiral-bound main menu, a smaller menu that was all color snapshots, a mushrooms-only menu, a flimsy paper menu favoring Cantonese offerings, and the aforementioned hot-pot menu, which constitutes a dining universe unto itself.
“Let’s go for ox tongues, instead,” I volunteered, substituting one glossa for another. Five minutes later, a giant plate of ox tongues and stomach tripe ($6.95) arrived, engulfed in gallons of red oil—a good sign that we were about to experience unreconstructed Sichuan fare. In short order, we launched a program to put other classics to the test.
Dan dan noodles ($4.25) proved as pretty as a picture, glistening with a sauce redolent of fermented beans and dark vinegar. The top came decorated with baby spinach leaves, culminating in a pile of ground meat. After we’d dutifully stirred the dish vigorously, the chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns worked in tandem, assertive but not overwhelming. Similarly delectable were the room-temp “garlic” apps, including “seaweed w. fresh garlic sauce” and the misnamed “cucumber w. hot sauce” ($3.95 each). Because both are unspicy, they serve as a cooling antidote to the shifting combination of Sichuan peppercorns, red chile oil, chile flakes, tiny pickled peppers, and fresh green chilies that other dishes exhibit.
Another cooling antidote is the whole tea-smoked duck ($13.95), the skin burnished deep scarlet and underpinned by a thin layer of fat. The dense flesh tastes as smoky as a trash fire in a roadside waste can. Little saucers of shredded scallions and hoisin sauce appear on the side. King of the standard Sichuan dishes is the braised whole fish in hot bean sauce, a bargain at $15.95. A chunky red sauce completely eclipses the fish, presumably so that one modest specimen can feed an entire family. Or maybe the Sichuanese prefer the earthy sauce to the actual fish.
Standards out of the way, we attacked the more unusual offerings, in which rabbit, frog, and organ meats predominate. “Flowered kidney with hot sauce” transplants to New York a dish that challenges Fuchsia Dunlop’s knife skills in her splendid memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. The organ hangs in little tendrils in a spicy stir-fry; careful cleansing has reduced the taste of urine to near-zero. Some kidney enthusiasts will be disappointed.
In subsequent visits, we dispatched bony nuggets of rabbit with a dry spice rub, shredded jellyfish slicked with scallion oil, steamed tilapia heaped with pickled mustard greens, pig bowel braised in a clay bowl, and, best of all, sliced baby lamb with fresh red and green chilies and swatches of leek, which provided a tongue-searing reminder that Spring is upon us. The cooks at Bamboo Pavilion are particularly adept with vegetables, treating them in ways that would cause the jaws of Western chefs to drop. A case in point is the potatoes shredded with jalapeños and lightly sautéed, leaving the spuds almost raw and delightfully crunchy. Pumpkin receives the same treatment.
So what makes Bamboo Pavilion the best Sichuan restaurant in town? Certainly, there are stalls on Flushing’s Main Street where the food is spicier. But Bamboo achieves a balance of flavors and a level of execution you won’t find in Queens—providing a convincing argument that Sichuan is, on its own, one of the world’s greatest cuisines.