So, have you been to China?"
I was sitting at the small bar in Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine on a slow Sunday evening, waiting for the feast that Vincent — my inquisitor, and also Chef Liu's waiter, bartender and host — had ordered for me from the Chinese dinner menu. Only part of that menu is translated into English, so Vincent had pointed at lines of characters and asked questions such as "Do you like whole fish?" "How about fatty pork?" Yes and yes. Ultimately, it had just seemed easier to ask Vincent to put together a meal of do-not-miss Szechuan specialties, which I'd heard was what you should really order at Chef Liu's, the spot that Liu Zeng Qun, the former head chef at Imperial Chinese, had opened last October in a strip-mall spot with a modest makeover. Vincent had nodded knowingly, made a few notes in Chinese on a ticket, inquired if I'd like a beer or glass of wine since it would take a few minutes for my food to come up (I went with tea instead), then disappeared into the kitchen.
Vincent was soon back with my tea, and since there were no other parties in the restaurant, he asked me more questions — including whether I'd ever been to China. I hadn't (the closest I've come is the Hong Kong airport), but Vincent had: He was born in Beijing. And he started regaling me with tales of his upbringing there, of his high school years in Denver and his college years at the University of Colorado, of his work in Silicon Valley, of the various businesses he'd owned — including the now-defunct Chopsticks China Bistro (its other owners opened Tao Tao Noodle Bar earlier this year) — and the projects he's involved in at the moment, including a green-technology consulting company in Boulder and another bar and restaurant in Beijing.
I was fascinated, since he looked far too young to have done so much. But my ears really perked up when Vincent launched into a full-scale lesson on Szechuan cuisine. "It originated in the Szechuan province in the south because of the heat and humidity," he explained. "People just wanted to sweat out everything in their body, so they had to eat spicy food."
That heat is fueled by the angry-looking red chiles used in so many dishes. But sweating isn't the only goal. "Real Szechuan food isn't just spicy," Vincent explained. "It also numbs your mouth." That's the work of the Szechuan pepper, which isn't a pepper or a chile at all, but rather the outer pod of a tiny fruit that looks a little like a brown Pac-Man. The Szechuan pepper isn't spicy, but it produces a tingling sensation that's like a subtle buzz of electricity or a hit of a mild local anesthetic.
Liu Zeng Qun had moved to the States from Beijing just over a decade ago, but the fact that he wasn't from the Szechuan province was no problem. "Beijing doesn't really have its own cuisine," Vincent explained. "It pulls from everywhere. Chef Liu learned Szechuan cooking." The addictive quality of Szechuan cuisine explains its popularity not only in China, he continued, but in this country as well. "You're only going to go to dim sum maybe once a week," he said. "But you get addicted to spicy food and to that numbing quality. You'll eat Szechuan every day. So which restaurant do you think is smarter to open?"
My food was soon up, and I kept Vincent's Szechuan primer in mind as I forked up a chunk of the cold chicken in a garlicky peanut sauce. Sadly, this dish was neither spicy nor mouth-numbing. And while I recognize that there are many non-spicy and less-spicy Szechuan specialties, the cold chicken skin had a gelatinous characteristic that made me wish my mouth were numb. I shoved that plate aside and started in on the lamb with cumin sauce. The tender meat had been rubbed with an earthy spice mixture supplemented with plenty of garlic and red chiles; a few seconds after the first bite, I began to feel the burn, a heat that lingered without ever becoming too oppressive or forcing surrender. The effect was tantalizing...and delicious.
The fact that I like fatty meat must have inspired Vincent to order the twice-cooked pork. It's one of the most universal examples of Szechuan cooking, he now explained, made by boiling pork belly that's then sliced and stir-fried with vegetables. In fact, there are few things on this earth I like more than a fat-ribboned strip of pork belly, and I quickly fell for Chef Liu's twice-cooked pork. The sauce was spicy, but not overwhelmingly so; I could taste equal parts ginger and garlic, as well as a tartness that lifted all the flavors. The pork itself was crispy on the outside but velvety, and the wok-seared scallions and leeks added a palate-cleansing crunch to the protein. As much as I loved this dish, though, I had yet to taste the difference between spicy and mouth-numbing.
And then I dipped my spoon in a vat of the spicy, mouth-numbing beef, a soup with a terrifying name and a terrifying hue: dark red, with an orange sheen. The sheer wicked heat radiated; I thought I'd cough up my lungs from the smell alone. Then I took a tentative bite, getting beef and bean sprouts and bits of chiles all at once. In the first second, I tasted just tang, earthiness and savoriness, maybe some ginger and garlic. As I chewed the beef, heat spread across the back of my palate, a pleasant, adrenaline-inducing burn that came with what felt almost like an extremely mild shot of novocaine. A light tingling spread across my entire mouth as the numbing sensation finally took hold. I took another bite. And another. My tea wasn't much help in quelling the flames, but the spiciness subsided quickly after each bite, no doubt deadened by the effects of the Szechuan peppers.
When I told Vincent I'd finally experienced the spicy-numbing sensation, he winked. "Look for that next time you try xin qing chicken," he said, mentioning another Szechuan specialty. "That's how you'll know it's authentic."
Unfortunately, most Szechuan dishes are dumbed down completely when they hit American soil, losing the Szechuan peppers and depth of flavor in favor of MSG and candy-sweet glazes. So even after my lesson, I was skeptical when on a return visit I was handed Chef Liu's lunch menu, with its long list of the Szechuan dishes most common in this country. I tried to ask for the Chinese dinner menu, but Vincent, now playing the quiet server, shook his head. "We only serve that menu at dinner," he told my group.
I looked around at the other diners in the now-crowded dining room, many of whom were chatting in Chinese over their meals, and wondered if I could ask what they were eating. Instead, I sighed and ordered dishes that didn't sound particularly interesting. But my appetite perked up the moment our pan-fried pork dumplings arrived, the wrappers crisped on one edge and filled with pungent, garlicky pork. Lunch included soup, and Chef Liu's version of hot and sour was slightly thick, with a palate-cleansing acidity and the heat and mouth-numbing effect of Szechuan pepper. We all drained our bowls.
Then the rest of the order arrived, along with a steamer of white rice. The dish I'd feared would be most tired, beef with broccoli, had a deeply savory sauce bursting with garlic that left a lingering heat and woke me right up. The ma po tofu had another wonderful sauce, earthy and stuffed with red chiles. And I absolutely loved the eggplant, mixed with water chestnuts and leeks and bathed in a sour sauce permeated with more garlic, ginger and peppers. Still, the best of this batch was the dan dan noodles. The tangle of thin pasta had been glazed with a sesame sauce, then topped with bits of beef, shredded cucumber and a couple of bulbs of bok choy. Mixed together, it was an addictive combination, and I kept slurping up noodles in that tingling sauce long after the rest of my party had put down their chopsticks.
Vincent cleared away the remnants of our lunch and presented us with a platter of melon chunks and the check. I was so full, I was sure I'd never want to eat again.
But two hours after I left, I was craving Szechuan food again: Vincent was right. I may never have been to China, but Chef Liu's could be the next-best thing.