I just ate at one of the best Sichuan restaurants in New York.
I walked along Main Street as the sun set, and when I got to 41-28, through a door and down a flight of stairs -- and suddenly I was back in Kowloon, in one of the warrens of food stalls between the huge apartment blocks on Nathan Road. That's what it felt like. If you've been to that mall, you know what I mean. If not, prepare for culture shock major.
The tiny stall named Chengdu Heaven was somnolent, almost empty. A woman carefully sliced a huge lung on a table while her husband ladled out soup. A young man hunched over a soup bowl, a tiny dog begging for scraps. (The dog is not usually there.) The menu was on the wall. Not a word of English written, not a word of English spoken. I recognized the characters for fish and bean in one dish, pointed to it. And then I waited.
Finally a man emerged carrying a big takeout soup container. Oh no I got soup! I thought. But it wasn't soup. That was the only dishes they had. It was a carefully layered masterpiece. On top, fresh cilantro and pine nuts. Below, pillow cubes of softest dofu were interspersed with nuggets of fish lightly coated with potato flour. Around all, a fiery red oily broth. Oh, it was wonderful. Swilrling currents of flavor in every bite. I'd asked for ma la (hot and spicy) and ma la it was, with chili and Sichuan peppercorns and clear sharp flavors I couldn't identify. As I was eating, people going to other stalls stopped and asked the owners what I was eating. I told them, and told them how fantastically good it was. That was fun. But the food was magical.
All too soon I finished and went back up the stairs. And it was the very same feeling I get when I see great art at the museum or a great film at a theatre, and then leave. The magic is over, the harsh light of reality intrudes. And yet... some of the magic stays with me.
Stall 31 (across from stall with "Happy Family" sign, also across from a shoe shop)
Mall at 41-28 main street, in the basement
Note on ordering. If you dont know Chinese, get a takeout menu at Spicy & Tasty. Take it with you and point to the dish you want. Of course, most of those dishes they don't have. I don't know what the dish I had is called, but they do have water-cooked beef which is called "Shredded Beef in fresh hot pepper" on the Spicy & Tasty menu.