10 Pell Street, New York NY 10013 (just west of Bowery; map); 212-233-3888; famoussichuan.com
Service: Extremely attentive, particularly when there are precious few diners in the place.
Setting: Typical Chinatown decor, television tuned to one of the Chinese channels, fish tank and low ceilings.
Compare It To: Grand Sichuan International on Canal and Szechuan Gourmet
Must-Haves: General Tso's Bean Curd, Sauteed String Beans...
Cost: Less than $25 a person for dinner and lunch on the weekends, $5.50 for lunch on weekdays
Here's the question I'm asked at cocktail parties just about as much as "what's your favorite restaurant?": Where can we eat in (Manhattan's) Chinatown without waiting in line?
Well, serious eaters, I have an answer for you: Famous Sichuan. It's a place that Robyn Lee's been going to since last November, and every time she goes she says there's never anybody in the place. I worry about good, moderately priced restaurants going out of business (we need every last one of them), so I went for the ridiculously cheap $5.50 lunch special both days I was wandering around Chinatown during my two-day tour of jury duty.
I tried four first-rate dishes at that point, and I vowed to return with multiple serious eaters in tow.
What did we find? An answer to one of the questions above, serious Sichuan food served to an almost completely empty dining room.
We had some serious Sichuan restaurant staples:
Sauteed string beans with Yibin Yacai MInced Pork ($8.95) is a superior version of the classic dry-sauteed string beans. They were crunchy and just charred enough with minced pork that ratcheted up the dish's porcine deliciousness.
Sauteed vermicelli with spicy minced pork ($9.95) is listed as one of the chef's specialties, with good reason. It's an incredibly satisfying homey Sichuan noodle dish with a modicum of heat. Sure, the vermicelli noodles could have been more al dente, but I couldn't stop eating them nonetheless.
Another dish that tested my serious diet resolve was the Chengdu double sauteed pork ($9.95). Thin, tender enough slices of pork streaked with plenty of seriously delicious fat, had a lovely, unexpected char, like they had been finished on a grill. You can get double-sauteed pork at a zillion places in various and sundry Chinatowns and out, but I haven't tasted one I liked more than this one.
A lamb dish, sauteed sliced lamb with Sichuan pickles and celery ($15.95) came as a composed salad on top of Chinese greens. The lamb was so powerful it practically baahed (it was definitely perilously close to mutton), and the dish also had what could only be described as the equivalent of Sichuan-style sun-dried tomatoes, with the Sichuan pickles standing in for their Italian counterpart.
Chichi Wang of our Nasty Bits and Seriously Asian columns, was one of the serious eaters at the restaurant, so it won't come as a surprise to all of you that we ordered duck's tongue in spicy capsicum ($15.95). Chichi's verdict: the duck's tongues were good, not great.
One of our summer interns Lingbo Li, who was born in the Liaoning Province and spent last summer in China (eating a lot of Sichuanese food), was also in the house. She requested diced rabbit with Sichuan sauce ($7.50) and ox tongue and tripe with chili sauce ($7.50), two classic Sichuan dishes. "The literal name of the ox tongue dish, fu qi fei pian, translates to husband wife sliced lung," she explained. She remembers eating it last summer in Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. "It's a classic Sichuanese cold appetizer." And in my opinion, it was great here. Even Chichi "Nasty Bits" Wang approved.
But did it pass Lingbo's authenticity test? "The spice on the ox tongue and tripe was good, and in general the Sichuan peppercorn on the dishes lends that right numbing-hot sensation. But they would have been swimming in more oil in China," she said.
As for the rabbit, it tasted like dry chicken breast still on the bone. "The rabbit meat they used isn't that great, but overall I was pleasantly surprised," our resident Sichuan food expert Lingbo said.
But the single best dish we tried was undoubtedly the least authentic. General Tso's bean curd ($8.95) was a miracle of a dish that should be a required menu item in every Sichuan restaurant. Cubes of crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside fried tofu are coated in a sticky sweet sauce. We could not stop eating them, and trust me, you won't be able to either.
Sorry, you can't get the General Tso's bean curd on the lunch special. Tough, cheapskates, spring for the $8.95. It functions as appetizer, main course, and dessert, all in crispy, sweet pillows of fried deliciousness.
So the next time someone asks me at a party where to eat in Chinatown without waiting in line, I will tell them Famous Sichuan. They need to go fast, because this restaurant needs and deserves serious eaters' patronage. And when you're seated immediately you can look out across the street at silly folks in line at Joe's Shanghai. Such a pity and so unnecessary with Famous Sichuan so nearby and empty.