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Navigating the Chinatown Menu of the Future at Flaming Kitchen

For years one of my favorite restaurants in Chinatown was Full House. It occupied the ground floor of a new elevator building on the Bowery just north of Hester Street. The name seemed to be a winking reference to the underground card games operating in the immediate vicinity from which disappointed gamblers would emerge at all hours, hats pulled down over their eyes. There was a downstairs to the restaurant outfitted with flat-screen TVs, booths edged in blue neon, and a disco soundtrack aimed at the Chinese club kids who frequented the place. Upstairs was a loft intended for their parents, crowded with round tables draped with white tablecloths, and decorated with waving babies and winking dragons. The specialty of the house was Shanghai cuisine, and the soup dumplings — each surmounted by a tiny wad of crabmeat —were some of the best in town.

Then the restaurant underwent an abrupt identity change. Last autumn a new sign appeared that shouted Flaming Kitchen, a name that has engendered endless jokes among gay friends. The décor remained largely the same, but instead of music videos the screens now display news programming in Mandarin and, somewhat absurdly, American bowling tournaments. And instead of Shanghai, the menu concentrates on "Szechuan Cuisine and Hot Pots." Yet when you flip it open, much of the Shanghai food remains, along with Sichuan cold dishes and hot pots, all-day dim sum, and Cantonese and Chinese-American stir fries, plus a smattering of northern Chinese, Taiwanese, and plain American fare, like french fries and chicken wings, all washed down with fruit shakes and bubble tea. Will this strange mix become the standard Chinese menu of the future?

Will this strange mix become the standard Chinese menu of the future?

And how to approach such a complicated and confusing document? It's easy enough if you're interested in the Sichuan stuff. Indeed, Flaming Kitchen is the first restaurant in Chinatown to pour on a serious quantity of ma-la peppercorns. In the section titled Cold Dishes, the ox tongue and tripe with chili sauce ($8.95) constitutes a sort of gateway drug to Sichuan cuisine, slicked with red oil and flecked with a modest quantity of peppercorns. The bumpy stomach tripe is mild enough that it might make an organ eater out of you. Better yet are the diced rabbit with peanuts (watch out for bones!) and the beef tendon — not the usual wobbly wads of connective tissue, but firmer flesh sliced thin for easy chewability.

Pickled vegetables and crispy tea smoked duck

All cold dishes don't prove to be spicy. Some are clearly intended as antidotes for a burning mouth, including dried bean curd sheet with celery ($5.95) and spicy and sour black fungus — more enticingly known as "cloud ears" and having the texture (as one friend blurted out) "of a wet plastic bag." The hot pots among the Chef's Specials are your best chance to blow the top of your head off with the incendiary combo of chile oil, dried chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns. The cheapest, which easily feeds four as an entrée, if you order enough rice, is "house special ma-la-tang" ($18.95). From it you might dredge up nearly any protein found in Chinatown markets. Braised whole fish in spicy chili broth and pepper corn ($24.95) is far more predictable, featuring a whole sea bass. The head rears up out of the burning red sea like Moby Dick, its opaque eyes flashing white.

Blindfolded, you might mistake it for Texas barbecue, though what part of the steer or sow would remain a mystery.

For high rollers, there's braised buffalo fish ($35.95), which provides so many white boneless carp filets that six normal eaters might not finish it. Other hot pots feature frogs, crayfish, chicken, and blue crabs. Also in the Chef's Specials are some not-hot Sichuan choices, too, such as the brilliant tea smoked duck ($19.95). Blindfolded, you might mistake it for Texas barbecue, though what part of the steer or sow would remain a mystery. You could really stay within the Chef's Special section for your entire meal, especially since it contains desirable standards from Shanghai (braised pork elbow), Taiwan (basil chicken), Xinjiang (grilled lamb chop with cumin), and Dongbei (pork with preserved cabbage). It also offers some duds, including the fascinating-sounding "sauteed Chinese yam, agarics and sweet peas," which turns out to be mainly big chunks of daikon, almost uncooked.

Flaming Kitchen fish hot pot Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Braised whole fish in spicy chili broth and peppercorn

Cantonese dishes and ones that originated in the watered-down "Szechuan" menu of the last century populate the menu categories called Poultry, Pork, Beef, and Vegetable & Bean Curd. Among them you'll find twice-cooked pork, baby shrimp in Szechuan sauce, and the poultry falsely attributed to General Tso, which was really invented in New York in the 1970s. But bland isn't always bad — as seen in braised tofu home style ($11.95), one of the best things on the menu. Mellow triangles of bean curd fried to fluffiness come interspersed with bright green pea pods and big mushrooms as slippery as black ice. Utterly delicious.

At a recent meal, some friends particularly enjoyed a soup called "house special beef flank noodle" in a deep brown broth that was flecked with pickled mustard greens. "This doesn't taste Sichuan," a pal exclaimed. And indeed it was not. This Taiwanese classic illustrates both the advantage and disadvantage of dining at Flaming Kitchen: there's a wealth of wonderful dishes from all over China, but the menu doesn't go into much depth where Sichuan is concerned.

Cost: Dinner for four around $100, including two dishes for each, a beverage, and tax but not tip

Sample dishes: Recommended Dishes: buffalo fish hot pot, hot and spicy cellophane (mung bean starch) noodle, tea-smoked duck, bean curd home style, steamed pork and crabmeat Shanghai soup dumplings

What to drink: Flaming Kitchen has a large roster of beverages, most priced from $3 to $4, including bubble teas, milk teas, milkshake-like smoothies, and such doctored sodas as "salty lemon 7-UP." Take a walk on the wild side with a date and wolfberry shake, or coffee with organic ganoderma extract. On the other hand, who wants mushrooms in their coffee?

Bonus tip: Priced around $7, the weekday lunch special includes many exciting dishes; you can get an abbreviated version of the signature hot pot ma-la-tang along with rice and a choice of an egg roll or soup.

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