Oohs and aahs went up as the waiter wearing a red neckerchief bore a bamboo bird cage across the room. It was decorated with bright plastic flowers, and he set it down on our table with a flourish. He opened the cage door and inside were nearly a dozen pork ribs neatly stacked. But these were not just any pork ribs: Each was compressed inside a sausage casing, giving them an eerily smooth and shiny appearance. The flesh was smoky and delicately flavored with cumin.
Sichuan food — or at least a pallid version of it — has been around New York at least since the 60s, when it achieved popularity on the Upper West Side and in Chinatown. The late 90s saw a resurgence of interest, with peppercorn-laden dishes that were spicier and altogether closer to those served in the Sichuan province in southwestern China. Chains like Wu Liang Ye and Grand Sichuan broadcast the cuisine throughout Midtown to Greenwich Village and even all the way to Bay Ridge.
Now a new phase in the development of Sichuan food is underway. New, more expensive places catering mainly to Chinese customers are popping up in Flushing. Not content with earlier versions of the cuisine and its collection of recognizable dishes, these menus explore Sichuan cooking as never before: including up-to-the-minute innovations occurring contemporarily in Sichuan restaurants in China.
DaXi is one of the newest. Related to a 35-year-old restaurant in Chengdu according to our hostess, it recently opened on the second floor of the New World Mall near the Flushing subway station. A line of easy chairs outside allow you to wait in comfort, in addition to signage of many types, including monitors that flip photos of scrumptious dishes offered inside.
The space is sprawling. Rows of padded booths line windows that look out on Roosevelt Avenue, while less comfortable booths with too-low banquettes run along one wall. Dozens of tables fill a central dining area, the chair backs printed with blue birds. The staff is eager, though not polished. A look at its Yelp will show that it’s filled with complaints — but DaXi is currently producing some of the city’s best Sichuan food.
The dish described above is called Tibetan-style pork rib ($23.99). It reminds us that Tibetan expats have been streaming into Sichuan province for decades, but did they bring this dish with them? A search suggests they merely inspired it, because Tibetan ribs in a birdcage seems like pure invention, of course. Other surprises include a bright orange congee made with millet instead of the usual rice. Slices of fresh sea cucumber float on top. Never seen fresh sea cucumber before? Neither had I.
Many of the dishes in the six entrée sections — with one outlier price that runs as high as $168.99 for a stir-fried tiger grouper — have visual gimmicks. The old favorite of kung pao shrimp, here rendered more austere than usual, features jumbo, perfectly cooked shrimp coated with a semi-sweet soy sauce tumbling out of a box of fried rice paper with a few raw cashews scattered on top. Evoking a Chinese carryout container, the box is technically edible, but I’d advise against it.
The cold appetizer of peeled and crushed cucumbers gobbed with garlic has become a standard in modern Chinese restaurants. But what is the best part of the cuke when it comes to crunch? To answer that question, DaXi reconfigures the dish as curling cucumber skins and calls it “crispy cucumber roll” ($7.99).
Ultimately, many judge Sichuan food by its hotness and gravitate toward orders that elicit the numbing endorphin rush provided by multiple forms of spiciness —sometimes all in one dish: red chile oil, dried red chiles, fresh green chiles, and perhaps best of all, Sichuan peppercorns.
One of the best and hottest dishes on DaXi’s menu goes by the wordy name of house special sliced fish in hot chile oil ($29.99). The very appearance of what’s inside the broad white bowl may cause you to gasp: Swatches of white fish glint among a vast flotilla of dried red chiles, among which bob whole Sichuan peppercorns. Be careful, because the fish is a little bony.
Ultimately, some of the greatest pleasures of DaXi are the simplest and cheapest. House special rice and cured meat in the country style ($12.99) is a crock filled with rice dotted with all sorts of meat and fat tidbits, and I could have happily eaten it as my entire meal. More surprising is corn pancake in Chengdu countryside style, which turns out to be clods of steamed cornbread with a wonderfully musty flavor, perhaps owing to the cornhusks in which they come wrapped. Can we call them Chinese tamales?