Gone are the days when you had to head to Queens for authentic Sichuan cooking. The Manhattan restaurants below specialize in “ma la,” the peculiar tongue-tingling effect that devotees crave and the uninitiated fear. By Jessica Allen.
La Vie en Szechuan
As many have noted, La Vie en Szechuan is a frivolous name for a nonfrivolous restaurant. Indeed, the folks here take their spices very, very seriously, as evidenced by the clear noodles with Szechuan chili sauce, a boiling orangy sea of oil, garlic, and peppercorns. But it’s the spicy chicken with fried twists (pictured), spilling out from an actual basket, that haunts our dreams. It demonstrates an utter manipulation of the thin line that separates pleasure and pain in the human brain, and stands as the epitome of truly tremendous Sichuan cooking.
This seemingly unambitious, unremarkable restaurant in Chelsea, with a menu full of dull Chinese-American dishes, has a wild Sichuan streak. Though people not in the know pass by and shrug, Chinese tourists and devoted foodies crowd into the bi-level space to try Ding Gen Wang’s ambitious and often inventive Sichuan cooking. Classic dishes like spicy cellophane noodles with pork (a.k.a., ants on a log [pictured]), Chen-du sweet potato noodles, dry spicy, tasty diced chicken with ginger and peanut, etc., etc. do not disappoint.
Land of Plenty
The first time we ate at Land of Plenty, our server looked at our plate and shook his head: “Too spicy for me,” he grimaced. Indeed, the food here gives a fiery zing, but it’s also pungent and earthy and smoky and sour and vinegary, offering many things to many people, in a refined, elegant space that absolutely reflects its East Midtown address. We’re awfully fond of the five spiced tofu with green house chives (pictured), a vegetarian dish for carnivores, in which the chives squeak like chatty celery and the tofu tastes just like ham.
At Hot Kitchen, the hot pot comes pre-prepared, removing your ability to dunk your own ingredients. To some, then, the malatang (pictured) at this East Village restaurant might not be as authentic as purists would like. Such critics might also scoff at the American Chinese section of the menu, with its orange beef and chicken with broccoli. Yet, no matter who mixes this mess, what arrives tableside is a complicated stew of greens and mushrooms, competing to see who can soak up the most chili oil favor. We’ll call it a draw as soon as our lips stop tingling.
This restaurant in Murray Hill is just about perfect. The decor is meant to evoke 1930s Shanghai, with typewriters, black-and-white portraits, old tea sets, and even an empty bird cage. Servers wear vintage dresses. Then there’s the food, from ma po tofu (sans meat!) floating in a chili oil bath (pictured) to sweet potato pancakes to the spicy Chengdu wonton stuffed with a nubbin of pork and chives. Chef Lu Ziqiang learned to cook from his mother, who was herself a chef at one of the most famous restaurants in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital. Eating here is totally transporting.