“This is the most exciting piece of mail we’ve gotten all year!”
So said my wife a few weeks ago, plucking out an oversized menu from the University City Han Dynasty emblazoned with the news, “Now Delivering!”
Indeed, it is a good time to be a Sichuan fiend in West Philly. Because Han Chiang isn’t the only guy spreading dan dan noodles around the neighborhood. This February saw the debut of Chili Szechuan at 4616 Baltimore Avenue.
In the plain but handsomely spruced-up storefront that used to house Green Garden, you can still get General Tso’s chicken and Crab Rangoon—part of the menu is dedicated to “Americanized” Chinese fare. But a confetti of Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chilies covers much of the rest.
That hot-and-numbing flavor combo isn’t the only thing Sichuan cuisine has to offer, but it is what Chili Szechuan did best over the course of two lunches and a dinner. A giant tub of “Spicy Chili Frog” turned both of those dials up to 11. If you’re down with the medicinal aspect Sichuan peppercorns take on in heavy doses, this tongue-tingling dish is for you. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer—only each blow reverberates ten times as long, what with all the tiny bones to negotiate in the surpassingly tender morsels of frog. It’s a fine way to get high on spice: let the heat build while you nibble around those bones, and then, when the frog’s gone, slam it into overdrive by wolfing down the firm tofu cubes that have sponged up the incandescent, oily sauce.
The dan dan noodles were restrained by comparison, and featured noodles that didn’t have quite the springiness of the ones I love at Han Dynasty. But at $5.95 for a generous bowl (compared with $7.95 for Han’s ass-exploding portion), they were a solid effort worth ordering again.
I wouldn’t say that of everything. I appreciated that the Kung Pao chicken—from the menu’s “Americanized” section—came with snipped dried chilies. Those are frequently missing from the food-truck versions with which I usually sate my Kung Pao cravings. But this one was disappointingly short on both peanuts and sweetness. Meanwhile, the Dongpo Braised Pork Belly—a Hunan-style “red cooked” dish—was appropriately sweet and mellow, but not nearly as aromatic or flavorful as the red-cooked chicken I improvised in my slow-cooker the week before. And as far as I’m concerned, chicken thighs have no business tasting more decadent than pork belly.
A hotpot of braised sirloin and bamboo shoots came off better, its warming (not scalding) spices stacked up in soothing layers to create a luscious mouthfeel. The beef was exquisitely tender—and though too much gristly connective tissue cling to the morsels for my taste, it was easy to peel off even with chopsticks.
Just the same, hot-and-numbing proved to be the real sweet spot here—and not just at that chili-frog extreme. A comparatively subdued ma po tofu struck the right balance, as did my favorite thing of all at Chili Szechuan: stir-fried cabbage with dry peppers, a scattering of Sichuan peppercorns, and a nutty, slight smoky chili oil that made it a winner by dint of fragrance alone.
My wife heartily agreed on that count—but she’ll still be lobbying for Han Dynasty next time we’re in the mood. I won’t fight her, but I will go back to Chili Szechuan. The prices are a notch lower, the service is friendly, and both of my deliveries came in a flash. The pungent flavors of south-central China have been jolting American palates out of their pleasant dim-sum stupor for a few years now, and I’m glad that the trend has come to roost where its fans have always hoped it would: the corner take-out joint.
Chili Szechuan [Official]