RING OF FIRE: The smokey hot shredded chicken with cayenne and fresh bamboo shoot will set your lips aflame. And we mean that in a good way.
|Sichuan Gourmet | 1004-1006 Beacon Street, Brookline | 617.277.4226 | Open Sunday–Thursday, 11:30 am–9:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 am–10:30 pm | AE, DI, DC, MC, VI | Full Bar | No Valet Parking | Sidewalk Level Access|
I thought I knew all about Sichuan food, back from when Joyce Chen and Peking on Mystic introduced what was then called "Mandarin-Szechwan" food to the United States via greater Boston. It was the rootin'-tootin' spiciest food anyone north of Texas had ever tasted, and it was supposed to be more authentic than the Cantonese-American food of Chinatown. But it kind of disappeared when Thai food came in, and dishes got Americanized: less spicy, more batter-fried, none of the mentholated, numbing Sichuan peppercorns. So when I began hearing about Sichuan Gourmet restaurants in Billerica and Framingham — there was even a Chowhound flame war between fans of one kitchen and the other — I was primed for a third branch in Brookline, and even more so after my colleague MC Slim JB (a Billerica fan) okayed it in a Phoenix
"On the Cheap" column last May.
Mrs. Nadeau and I dropped in for a pre-cinema sniff on what I remembered as authentic Sichuan dishes: tangerine beef ($13.95), Sichuan kung bao chicken ($9.95), and basil Chinese eggplant ($8.95). Instead of food the way Szechwan food used to taste, however, there we were with breaded, deep-fried slices of beef the size of a small hamburger patty, studded with bits of tangerine peel in a gloopy sweet sauce. You know you are in General Gau's personal dungeon for pretentious Anglos when the server puts down a fork with your chopsticks and the dish is in pieces that need to be cut with a knife (which you don't have).
The diced chicken and peanuts we could at least eat in a civilized way, and the breading was light enough that we could taste the meat and little bit of spice. The basil eggplant — not a classic Sichuan dish — was delicious. I've seldom had a bad eggplant dish under East Asian auspices.
I knew, of course, that this fiasco was my own fault. I knew this because of the refreshing assortment of half-pickled chopped vegetables placed on the table with the menus. And I knew because the rice was outstanding.
A week later, after a more careful study of the Chowhound flame war and other arcane texts, I had a plan. I was going to start our order with the beef tendon with "spicy wonder" sauce ($7.25). The waitress said, "It's tendon. Have you had that before?" I said, "Sure, I know, tendon."
She still wasn't sure. She said, "It's very spicy?" I said, "Spicy, great. Yes!"
As in a fairy tale, there had to be three tests. "It's a cold dish," she said. Mrs. Nadeau replied, "It's a hot night. A cold dish would be good."