Burning Desire 

Ignore your flaming lips: Some of Little Sichuan's fiery fare is too good to stop nibbling.

On a recent weeknight, Little Sichuan Express had the feel of a party lurching into sloppy, a good sign in a strip mall that seemed pretty much deserted. Ten guys in trashed business suits sat around a table covered with the wreck of a lengthy meal. Platters stacked up on the lazy Susan, crowded with napkins stained orange with chile oil. A guy with one pant leg pulled up to his knee dispensed the last Coronas from a couple of 24-packs, as shuffling leather shoes sent empties skittering under the table like bowling pins. A cook lugged a hulking stainless-steel bowl of hot water out of the kitchen — a big communal finger bowl.

At another table, a girl used one hand to press a cell phone to her ear. With the thumb and forefinger of the other she bracketed a piece of dry-cooked hot spicy chicken while she nibbled, delicately, as if she were dining on a truffle.

But there's nothing delicate about the chicken pieces at Little Sichuan Express, just like a lot of the Sichuan and homey, Beijing-style dishes here. With its cheerful pastel walls, the eight-year-old restaurant feels a little like a scuffed, pink cake box, one that offers up the occasional startling taste. Even a few dangerous ones.

Those dry-cooked chicken nuggets — bite-size skin-on wing pieces — are one of the essential things to order here. Ask for spicy, and they'll arrive in a brick-red slough of chile oil, and crowded with pieces of star anise and garlic sliced thick as poker chips. They're tossed with dried chiles right out of the fry oil, which means that tiny, fractured bits of chile and the seeds they contain have fused to the searing chicken skin. Flicking them off isn't easy, even with sharp chopstick tips. There's no way around eating them, even when your lips are so inflamed with chile fire they feel as puffy as Angelina Jolie's.

But the chicken pieces are so good you want to keep going, and to hell with bloated lips. The incense-flowery scent of the anise lurks underneath the stark, weedy blast of chile, a juxtaposition with the weight and texture of dishes from north India. It's interesting on its own, even without the moist, chewy feel of deep-fried chicken working its fibers deep into the spaces between your teeth.

The restaurant's name is a clue to its original design as a takeout. A bigger place, Little Sichuan Restaurant, sits across the bay in San Mateo. Most customers I saw over my three visits ate in, but there's an empty steam table near the cash register, and a backlit menu board just like at Panda Express (although this one lists only about a dozen of the hundred-plus dishes on the regular menu). Plates and cups are all disposable plastic foam, even for sit-down diners, and there are blue Bic pens and mark-it-yourself paper menus on every table.

But the Bics are an empty gesture. Lily, our server, approaches ordering as part consultation, part negotiation. Stocky, pink-faced, and friendly, she snatches up the pen and throws down suggestions. She marks up the menu sheet, then copies it all out in Mandarin onto a little order pad.

Lily has an uncanny sensitivity. She brings a pitcher of water and sets it on the table — a Pyrex measuring jug one time when the place was busy and the standard pitchers were all spoken for. She decided it had gotten too hot outside, so halfway through one meal, she sidled up and dropped ice cubes into our plastic foam water cups. And she watched our progress through the dishes we ordered like the headwaiter at a banquet.

We ordered Sichuan-style spicy cold fun without Lily's blessing. It was a thrilling descent, more like some raw psychic slog than nourishment. The house-made fun were thick, jellylike fingers with a flabby texture like baked pork fat. Semi-opaque, they bobbed in a broth as dark as wet brick, a cold slurry of broth, white pepper, and chili bean paste topped with crunchy toasted soybeans. The salt and chiles seemed to be pickling our tongues, and we had to keep bracing ourselves for more bites, like wading crotch-deep through the surf at Ocean Beach. After a few bites, the water in our foam cups tasted like Sprite: sweet, tart, and spritzy. Freaky, I know. Especially since it turned back into water after a few sips away from the fun.

The spicy cold noodles with ground pork proved safer. This dish is a mixture of fresh egg noodles, crumbly pork, and cucumber cut into long, thin pieces like mini chopsticks. It employs the same dressing that inflames the fun, but the saltiness seemed tamer when soaked into the big bland noodle ball. It's just as fiery, though, with a tannic edge (from fermented soybean paste) that's a bit like sesame tahini. The noodles were chewy, tasty, and filling.

Smoked meats are a specialty of western China's Sichuan province, and the Sichuan smoked pork is a nice example. It's a heavy pile of thick bacon slices, tinted at the edges with black soy. There's a handful of raw garlic slices for the reek-friendly, and a drift of pulverized chiles to dip into.

Mapo tofu is another Sichuan standard. The one here is messy, homestyle, and delicious, a sprawling sloppy-Joe-like mixture of ground pork and brothy Chinese chili bean sauce. It's filled with big, irregular cubes of silken, custardy tofu. Dry-cooked string beans with spice sauce are a house specialty, but there's nothing particularly special about them. They're Kentucky Wonders, not long beans: plump and studded with whiskery pieces of soy-stained ginger.

Peking-style eggplant is a dish with luxurious textures and a homely silhouette. The halved eggplants were braised to a near-purée, held together only by their pale purple skins. This is a good dish to balance against salty, searing Sichuan dishes. So is sour cabbage with fish fillet soup, although in a different way. Suffused with a big blast of vinegar, it seemed cleansing somehow, with large, white pieces of pounded fish belly. They felt soft against the tongue — a little like the big, soft scraps of meat in green onion with lamb. It had the classic northern Chinese bones: golden caramelized yellow onions, wilted scallion pieces, and lots and lots of earthy-tasting lamb. Take a bite after eating one of those dry-cooked spicy chicken nuggets, one of the last ones left on the platter, flocked with chile seeds and suffused with fiery oil. It's like smearing butter on a grease burn.

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