Sure enough, our three appetizers and three entrees were nearly all insanely spicy, and yet each had a richness and subtlety all its own. For the first time in many years I could again read my own lips as moving rings of fire, and the words that they were forming were: "This is really great." We asked for food to be brought to the table as it came out, and the sequence got hotter and hotter. We were passing more tests.
The first dish actually wasn't spicy, fresh bamboo shoots with special sauce ($5.95). The shoots are pale green, shredded to look like overcooked green beans, whose texture they mimic well, here in a light sesame-ginger sauce.
The tendon was sliced ultra thin so that it made lasagne-like ribbons, each coated with pale orange sauce that was really hot and really good. The texture is both gelatinous and a little crunchy. Appetizer portions are generous, but we ate so much tendon, I'm sure the kitchen really opened up on our dan dan noodles ($4.95), another cold dish with a just a little sauté of minced plutonium, probably Sichuan peppercorns and chilies in the mix.
A special on fried dried lamb with cumin ($13.95) was not dried but stir-fried without sauce so bits of hot pepper seed and cumin clung to slices of tender meat, on a bed of lettuce you could use to dampen the fire. Slightly. "Smoky hot shredded chicken with cayenne" ($10.50) — this was my personal favorite, for the chicken cut into sticks little thicker than spaghetti, the equally thin strips of hot and flavorful green chili, and the full flavor of oil infused with dried red chilies for contrast. An ancient memory nudged me into using rice ($.95) rather than water for coolant.
I remember ma po tofu ($8.95) as being a dish that featured Szechuan peppercorns, and often minced pork. Ours was vegan and subtle, perfect cubes of soft tofu in a red-chili oil, probably undertones of other peppers and ginger.
By dessert, we had earned a visit from the chef, who recommended the "authentic" sesame rice balls ($4.50) off the specials list. What we had were six hot (warm) dumplings in slightly sugared water, each made of pounded sticky rice with a filling of sweetened and interestingly gritty ground black sesame seeds. It cleared the palate.
The former location of Chef Chang's is now a bright and open room with some nice wall art and only two modest plasma TVs. Service is quick and accurate no matter what you order, but the menu silhouettes are almost completely meaningless. No icon seems to mean mild, but most of our dishes on both visits were in the one-icon range, which in Thai-restaurant terms would cover everything from half a silhouette up to about a record five or six. Obviously, the kitchen has a lot of latitude and whether they are using racial profiling or "tendon" as the password, you must convince them that you want really hot food. If you got to be a regular, you might even persuade the kitchen to make tangerine beef the way it used to be.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at email@example.com.