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Speaking through a small square opening in the bulletproof Plexiglas at Great Wall–Szechuan House Restaurant, manager May Kuang suggests I try the ma-po tofu if I want a true scorching taste of ma-lastyle Szechwan cooking. Within minutes, Kuang presents a large bowl stacked with white boulders of firm tofu; the pile, sprinkled with black beans and crumbles of cooked pork, is heaped in a shallow pool of dark-red sauce that fills my nostrils with steam, spicy heat, and the vaguest scent of pine needles.
Kuang and her husband, Great Wall chef Chen Yuan, stand there as I eat, waiting, no doubt, for an involuntary spit-back or maybe even cardiac arrest. Just how hot is Chen’s ma-po tofu? My tongue has gone numb, and saliva is pooling at the base of my mouth. Yet the burn is not one of those macho, extreme-sport tests of your palate, a Dave’s Insanity Sauce for Chinese cookery; the chili-pepper heat is both scented by floral Szechwan peppercorns and tempered by the cool tofu, the starchy black beans, and the meaty pork. Its complexity makes American-style Szechwan plates seem hollow, if not downright insulting to stateside eaters who insist they’re open to new adventures.
I wonder aloud why Chen doesn’t feature this, or his other traditional Szechwan dishes, on the menu. “Too hot! Too hot!” says Chen in his broken English, using his hands to mime sparks shooting from his head. “Not a lot of Americans order ma-la,” counters Kuang, serving as translator. The only way, it seems, that people discover Chen’s off-the-menu specials is through friends.
I discovered Great Wall not through pals, but by dumb luck. I was making random visits to Chinese restaurants, and cold-calling others, determined to locate one that could bring the heat like the place Anthony Bourdain visits in The Nasty Bits. In his essay “China Syndrome,” Bourdain writes that he and a buddy, while testing their heat resistance at a Chengdu restaurant, were dipping meats into hot palm oil spiked with chilies and Szechwan peppercorns. “It’s like a lethal fondue,” Bourdain writes. “We’re both in full lather.”
Certainly, I thought, some local Chinese restaurant must do Szechwan the old-fashioned way—in which your tongue begs for mercy. My early searches were not promising. The Szechwan pork at Lei Garden in Chinatown was more pussycat than fire-breathing dragon, and if that plate was mild, then the Szechwan chicken at Eat First was downright milquetoast. I did unearth a surprise or two, including China Star in Fairfax, where the chef does not shy away from ma-la Szechwan.
But then I dialed a tiny takeout place on 14th Street NW, just because its name sounded promising. Little did I realize that some of the area’s best Szechwan would be crouching within the Great Wall-Szechuan House. The Great Wall is a boxy operation with tangerine-colored walls, fake-leather booths, and an electric menu. Kuang lured me here with the promise that Chen can transport you to Szechwan with a flip of his wok.
Before he opened Great Wall in 2002, Chen had kicked around various D.C. restaurants, from Mr. K’s to Hunan Dynasty, since immigrating to the United States in 1991. One of the main reasons Chen decided to go into business for himself was to cater to customers who wished to venture beyond bland Chinese-American fare. “He wanted to take care of customers by himself,” Kuang says. “If you work for another boss, the boss decides that, not you.”
Perhaps because of the ramshackle appearance of Great Wall, Chen and Kuang are eager to prove the chef is no poseur. Kuang shows me a passport-like document, written in Chinese, apparently certifying Chen as a master chef from a cooking school in Chengdu. A wary Chinese Embassy official, who won’t give his name, says the paperwork indeed certifies Chen as a “first-grade chef.” “I’m not sure that it’s the best,” the official says, “but it should be a very high quality.”
Kuang also shows me photos of Chen’s visual artistry, including flowers he carved from root vegetables and a rooster he created entirely out of food. As if to back up the photographic evidence, Chen retreats to the kitchen and returns with a platter on which he has built a peacock out of baby bok choy, perfectly cooked chicken-encased scallops (which assume the role of the “eyes” in the plumage), and a carrot carved to resemble a bird’s head.
The “peacock” and Chen’s other edible Chinese bird-and-flower paintings are the equivalents of Michel Richard’s modern-art plates, but they’re not the reason you’ll willingly navigate the construction-clogged streets to find the nearest parking spot to the Great Wall. The attractions here are Chen’s hard-core Szechwan dishes: the beef with broccoli, the chicken dumplings, even lesser flamethrowers such as the batter-dipped shrimp or the double-cooked pork in black-bean sauce. Everything Chen cooked, I devoured—and greedily bagged the rest for later.
The difference between Chen’s cooking and American-style Szechwan often boils down to ma-la—“ma” meaning “peppery,” as in the sour, pine-needle-like flavors of Szechwan peppercorns, and “la” meaning “hot,” as in generous amounts of dried chilies. Too many Western-style Szechwan dishes stiff you on ma and scrimp on the la. But as Kuang says, “Szechwan is ma-la.”
Curious to know if Chen pulls any punches with his Szechwan, I ask Kuang how the spice level of the ma-po tofu compares to the heat you’d find back in China. She giggles, as if out of sympathy, and guesses that Chen’s version is only “70 or 80 percent as hot.”
Great Wall–Szechuan House Restaurant, 1527 14th St. NW, (202) 797-8888.
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