According to The Insiders Guide to Chinese Restaurants in New York by William Clifford, our first Sichuan restaurant appeared in Chinatown around 1970. Located at 23 Chatham Square, Szechuan Taste — the name reflected the old-fashioned transliteration of "Sichuan"— served a sophisticated take on a cuisine that had recently caused a sensation in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Clifford mentions that the chef had worked in Taipei for famed landscape painter Chang Ta-chien (who inspired his own Sichuan dish), and the chef’s repertoire in Chinatown included tea-smoked duck flavored with camphor, hot braised live carp, and sliced pork sautéed with fish flavor.
During the ensuing decade more Sichuan restaurants popped up in Chinatown, but less predictably, the Upper West Side became a hotbed of the fiery cuisine at places like Szechuan and Szechuan Royal — with the hotness toned down and an emphasis on such tamer recipes as noodles with sesame sauce and baby shrimp, Szechuan-style. It was this blander version of the cuisine, and one lacking Sichuan peppercorns, which were then technically illegal in the US, that eventually worked its way onto the menus of nearly every neighborhood Chinese restaurant in the city.
Meanwhile, perhaps inspired directly by the cuisine’s popularity back in Taiwan, Sichuan restaurants began opening in Flushing, where Taiwanese immigrants were just beginning to settle. There are now at least eight Sichuan restaurants in the neighborhood by my count, plus nearly a dozen stalls that offer it in Flushing’s sprawling food courts. The oldest restaurant is Szechuan House, founded in 1985 (it has cycled through a few names under the same ownership over the years). Located on the same block of seedy looking commercial buildings where Little Pepper was to get its start in 2005, at the time it was surrounded by massage parlors and gambling dens.
Now the block has become more upscale, featuring a glitzy new food court. The restaurant itself welcomes customers with wine bottles in the front window, well-spaced furniture, and a huge painting of pink roses on the wall. While the menu may not seem as wild or comprehensive as that of many of its younger counterparts, Szechuan House offers a well-polished version of the cuisine utilizing superior ingredients, with a level of presentation and service that verges on the elegant.
The classic dishes are all in evidence. The playfully nicknamed "ants on a log" — here called "clear noodles with meat spicy sauce" ($9.95), and paradoxically included in the Vegetables section — is a morass of clear mung-bean threads in a thick soup tasting pungently of fermented bean paste, reminding us how fermentation has become a fad in modern culinary praxis. The name comes from the fact that, if you squint your eyes, the finely ground pork looks like insects clinging to the noodles.
Tea-smoked duck is cooked until the dark carmine flesh achieves a pastrami-like texture, while "spicy slice beef and tendon" ($7.95), heavily glossed with chile oil, has a few frilly pieces of honeycomb tripe thrown in to vary the terrain. Few Sichuan restaurants in town do whole fish as well as Szechuan House. The champion swimmer is a Szechuan-style whole tilapia ($19.95), a bargain two-pounder (my estimate) that comes smothered in ground meat and festooned with red peppers and cilantro, not quite as spicy as some other examples around town.
You want hot? The spiciest thing my guests and I tortured ourselves with was "slice fish with peppercorn," which featured a dozen or so small filets poached in red oil and heaped with crushed Sichuan peppercorns, leaving your mouth feeling like you’ve been chewing on a live electrical wire. (Once you get used to the sensation, you begin to crave it.)
There are more-obscure Sichuan dishes, too, including a mellow beef brisket casserole loaded with crunchy bamboo and lotus root that tastes like something an Eastern European mom might have made, and fried sweet potato puffs that we fed to a baby in our party one evening, who gobbled them down as someone chimed in, "Isn’t this supposed to be our dessert?" Though not the most thin-skinned in town, the Sichuan wontons in hot oil were freshly made, and well-stuffed with pork.
Demonstrating the influence of other regional cuisines and Taiwanese in particular, some interesting non-Sichuan dishes have worked their way onto the restaurant’s menu in the last 30 years. One is wasabi arctic surf clams ($9.95), which sounds like a band formed by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Undoubtedly inspired originally by Japanese cuisine, the red-flanged sea creature is coated in thick green horseradish sauce, which climbs right up your nose. It turns out to be quite a nice alternative to the metallic throb of Sichuan peppercorns.