This weekend I visited Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville, MD with a fellow spicy food enthusiast Matt S.
Sichuan Pavilion was highly recommended by ethnic food and economics blogger Tyler Cowen (it is, in fact, #1 in his Top 5 list), and so despite the distance, we decided to give it a shot. We had previously visited Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing together with Josh, and I think both of us were eager to compare the best of NYC with the best D.C. had to offer.
Sichuan Gourmet is nestled in a deteriorating strip mall/business center with drab, brownish architecture. Despite the dismal exterior, the restaurant was packed, with a line of people waiting for tables. We knew right then that the restaurant would either be terrific, or inappropriately popular. Fortunately, it was the former.
We managed to get seated relatively quickly because I pointed out two empty tables for two, but the wait for larger groups was much longer. Unfortunately, the restaurant only takes reservations for groups of 6+ (I was told), so prepare to stand around if you go during peak hours.
The menu is divided into an American Chinese Style section, and an Authentic Chinese Style section, so you don’t actually have to ask for the “secret Chinese menu” like in some other places. Both menus were quite extensive, and we would become very impressed that they could execute such an ambitious menu.
We ordered the Dan Dan Spicy Noodles, Ma Po Tofu, Fresh Pepper Corns w. Fish Fillet, and Smoked Duck. Both the Dan Dan noodles and Tofu are normally served with minced beef, but since Matt is a vegetarian, were able to request them without.
The Dan Dan noodles came first. Although they initially come out looking like a bowl of plain noodles, all the sauce is on the bottom, and its important to toss and mix the noodles. Although we were familiar with this preparation, it may have been helpful for the waitress to mention the proper way to mix the food, or even to mix it table side. The noodles were not how I expected them to be; normally they are more white than yellow, and slightly thicker, so they’re chewier. The chili sauce was good, though not initially super spicy. We thought the Sichuan peppercorn that imparts the characteristic numbing sensation could have been used more liberally. A few other ingredients I would have liked to see in this dish were steamed bok choi, and maybe fermented black bean. Without the black bean or more peppercorn, the spiciness was a bit one-note; with them, I think the dish would have had a more complex flavor. Overall, the noodles were very tasty, but not as delicious as the same dish at Szechuan Gourmet.
Matt ordered the Ma Po Tofu, a classic Sichuan dish that we also had in NYC. The tofu was cooked very well, and you could tell it had been stir-fried in the wok for a while. It was browned, rather than white, and little pieces of tofu had chipped off the edges and melted into the sauce. I mention the brown coloration because you often get tofu that’s very white, bland, and sort of lukewarm on the inside. This tofu was terrific, and the flavors penetrated all the way to the inside of the tofu. As Matt put it, it was the difference between eating a great tofu dish, and a eating great sauce with some white cubes floating in it. He thought it was the best tofu he had ever had, and I would agree that it was up there among my Top 5 tofu experiences.
The smoked duck came highly recommended from several other food blogs, even though it is not precisely Sichuan. You could definitely taste the tea smoke in the duck. I was happy to see the fat was properly rendered, because excess duck fat is the biggest problem with classic Peking duck. After the duck was smoked, it was breaded and fried, and the skin was super crunchy. Unlike Peking duck skin, which at its best is thin and crispy, this was more like a chicarrone. The generous pile of duck was placed on a bed of chopped lettuce, ringed with buns, and topped with some cilantro; there was also a bowl of sweet black bean sauce (I think this is often conflated with hoisin sauce, incorrectly). The intent seemed to be for the diner to create duck pouches like one would with Peking duck pancakes. The buns were very, very authentic-tasting. Many restaurants buy their buns pre-packaged, and they have the soft airiness of processed Chinese pastry bread. The bread of these buns seemed more substantial, and tasted like the man tou my mom and grandmother used to steam. I was very happy about them, and it gave me a sort of Ratatouille moment. The duck as a standalone item was absolutely delicious, and I loved the crunchy texture and the flavor of the tea smoke. However, I thought the duck pouch concept could have been executed better. For example, instead of lettuce, which has absolutely no flavor, they could have used julienned cucumber. Instead of cilantro, I think the more traditional slivers of scallion would have been better suited.
The last dish was the peppercorns with fish fillets. This is the pescatarian version of the braised beef fillets in chili oil soup that I discussed in the Szechuan Gourmet review. The fillets of fish (I couldn’t tell what kind… probably tilapia) were cut into square inch pieces, about a quarter of an inch thick, and were swimming in a deep red chili broth. In a lot of places, ordering this dish means you get single layering of meat on a bed of napa cabbage, but in this case they actually gave you a lot of fish. In general, we thought the portion sizes of this restaurant were very generous. The fish held up well through the cooking process. You could pick them up with chopsticks without them falling apart; they were still flaky, and not at all overcooked. The chili broth itself was very spicy, but I thought once again they could have used more peppercorn in it.
The service was very responsive, and we had no trouble waylaying different waitresses with requests, none of that “I’ll get your server” stuff you see in many American restaurants. I appreciated the extra-large glasses of water. Though we didn’t necessarily need the water to put out any oral fires, the management understood the effect of their food on clientele (and drinking water is just more fun after eating Sichuan peppercorn). This is an odd comment, but we also thought the chopsticks were very nice. Not the one-time use chopsticks that you have to rub splinters off of, or the overly lacquered and slippery fancy chopsticks, just nice wooden chopsticks you would find in any normal Asian home. As with most very-authentic Chinese restaurants, the stuff on the walls was nothing to write home about, but the decor was in the atmosphere–the packed dining room with large families, the instantly-recognizable aroma of great Sichuan cooking, even the predictably kitchy decorations. Eating Sichuan food in a more fancy setting (like Sichuan Chalet on the Upper East Side) just wouldn’t be quite the same; wiping the orange chili oil off your chin with a nice white cloth napkin would seem almost disrespectful.
One final constructive comment. The menu had a short beer list with the standard Budweiser, Heineken, and Tsingtao offerings. It would be great to see a white wine or two, particularly (since I’m a big fan) a few Rieslings which go really well with spicy Chinese food. And of course, markups on wine always equal large profits for the restaurant.
I’d definitely recommend Sichuan Pavilion to any readers in the D.C. metro area who are willing to travel a bit for a spicy food adventure. While Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing remains my favorite Chinese restaurant, I thought all the dishes we had were terrific and, and hope to one day return to explore more of their extensive menu.
Sichuan Pavilion: 3.5 / 5
410 Hungerford Dr