At A Bite of Szechuan, numbing, spicy dishes are crafted with great skill and Szechuan peppercorns and chilies are the star ingredients. It's only a few months old, but Arcadia Terrace neighborhood restaurant's kitchen knows how to use those peppercorns to delicious, tingly effect.
"Especially Chengdu people, they really like the numbness, when it gets to their tongue," said Jacky Li, whose mother owns the restaurant.
Li's grandfather runs the kitchen, where he deftly cranks out addictive chili chicken, a poached bird that's hacked up and topped with sugar, soy, garlic, scallions, peanuts and a homemade chili oil I'd pay for if it was bottled.
"The most important ingredient that he has in every dish is the chili oil, 'cause he makes the chili oil himself and I don't think anyone else in Chicago can make it better than him," Li said.
He also frys chicken and tops it with dried chiles, and live seafood is always an option. Crab and chilies is an amazing combination. Their hallmark is a whole fish dish that's first deep-fried.
In a wok, he cooks chiles, peppercorns and chopped vegetables, then douses the fish with it, creating a soothing, searing, communal eating event that's kept warm on the table, courtesy of burners.
"It's kind of like a hot pot but with fish in it," he said.
Not everything is spicy here - eggplant is outstanding and so are the cold salads, like a simple cucumber, lettuce and peanut number that I couldn't stop eating. Li says they try to offer something for everyone.
"Like for the stuff that's not spicy, it has it's own unique taste," he said.
So the hallmark of Szechuan cooking is that Szechuan peppercorn that produces that "ma-la" - that feeling of numbness or tingliness on your tongue. If you've never had it before, I highly recommend it. Now if you find that the chilies are a little bit too much for you, don't worry, don't drink a bunch of water, that's what the white rice is for.
EXTRA COURSE: Steve Dolinsky talked about two traditional Szechuan desserts served at A Bite of Szechuan
A BITE OF SZECHUAN
5657 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago