Decades of bad choices made by diners have made it hard for non-Chinese-speaking eaters to gain the respect of a cook in a Chinese-American restaurant, particularly in a Sichuan restaurant where bold spices are the norm. Ask the waiter for recommendations, and the usual response is a defeated look and a phlegmatic endorsement of the General Gau’s chicken, fried rice, or another popular but inane item. But insist enough that you really do want to try that unidentifiable animal part riddled with chilis you don’t see on the English menu but the table next to you is enjoying, or that your Chongqing dry chicken just wasn’t spicy enough the last time, and eventually they’ll start serving you the real deal.
The quick way to the chef’s heart at Sichuan Garden in Brookline is to start your meal with their specialty Sichuan-style appetizers. Warm dan-dan noodles come with an addictively sharp vinegar-spiked sauce accented with pickled mustard greens and flecks of hot chili, while their green-bean tofu (which contains neither green beans nor tofu) has a unique crisp-yet-giving texture unlike anything else. The best use of their roasted chili-peanut vinaigrette (which makes its way onto a dozen or so dishes) is on the ox meat and tripe, which comes cooked just to the point where the cartilaginous meat is tender yet retains a bit of its toothsome crunch. Served cold and sliced ultra-thin, it’s tossed in deep-red oil flavored with peanuts, sesame seeds, and dried Tientsin chilis (roasted, to bring out their natural sweet smokiness). Rice vinegar, crisp celery, and fresh cilantro help cut through the peppery oil, but do nothing to tame its fiery bite. With classic inferno-hot and bracingly sour elements, it’s the perfect way to warm up your palate and dull your pain receptors for the dishes that the suitably impressed chef will soon inflict upon you.
Available for $7.95 at Sichuan Garden, 295 Washington Street, in Brookline. Call 617.734.1870.