Sometimes you find a food that’s so enthralling, so intoxicating that you know you could keep eating it for a very long time, health consequences be damned. For me, such dishes are usually pork-based. The first time I had this get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-before-I-eat-more experience was years ago at a Filipino place on the far northside; the food was lechon kawali, fried cubes of pork belly, golden crunchy outside, pillow-tender and fatty inside, so simple and so seductive. At one point I had to push the plate away and step back from the table or I would surely have just kept eating them. I started to get concerned for my health, physical and mental.
The most recent example of such crazed eating took place was last week at Sze Chuan Cuisine in Chinatown.
Sze Chuan Cuisine [http://www.szechuancuisinechicago.com/] is about four years old, and it’s at the very southern end of Chinatown on Wentworth, right before you get to the I55 overpass. It’s an easy shot on the Green Line from Oak Park; just get off at the new-ish Cermak McCormick stop and walk west for about 12 minutes.
The first dish we had at Sze Chuan Cuisine was Ox Tendon and Maw in Chili Sauce ($6.95). Though tendon is officially offal, this preparation had none of the funk of other nasty fifth-quarter bits like kidney or intestine; slow cooked and tender, what tendon has going for it is texture, tooth-tender though almost crunchy; not like cartilage at all but strangely, pleasingly chewy. And translucent. The maw, which is usually the throat or gullet of the animal, is meatier, with a slightly different texture than the tendon. In a hot chili sauce that enhanced but didn’t overwhelm, this was a very tasty appetizer, palate-perking and…fascinatingly delicious. The Chinese put a premium on food texture, and this meat salad was a collection of intriguing tactile tongue sensations. My mouth muscles had fun.
A salad with chunks of cucumber and ribbons of dry tofu was a perfect balance against the tendon and maw, adding crispness and slight acidity to balance the chili heat. We nibbled at this throughout the meal to cool our tongues and provide a little vegetal pleasure between all the fleshy chews.
And then it came…the dish that hit all the right buttons, a symphony of heat and sweet, vegetable and meat, a lunch of (many subsequent) dreams:
…Pork spare ribs ($13.95).
Under more chili-based sauce, this time Mala, with a goodly amount of Sze Chuan peppercorns (I could tell because my tongue grew numb as I ate), onions and chives, this was a spectacular presentation of pig meat. A lot of the fat rendered out, but much still clung to the strips of meat, making each bite both toothy and lush, the fat leavened by the chili heat. I ate and ate and I knew I should have stopped, but I didn’t. That night, for dinner, I had ginger ale. But I’d go back for those ribs, oh man, were they good.
Chinatown is a tremendous resource for food adventurers. Going as a kid to Wentworth and environs was my first exposure to a culture dramatically different than my own. Since then, I’ve never gone to Chinatown for dinner when I have not been pleased and surprised by the culinary inventiveness of a country whose culture we might as well get an understanding of before we go to war with them.
Anyway, Sze Chuan Cuisine is worthy and wonderful and well worth the trip.
Sze Chuan Cuisine
2414 S. Wentworth