Spirited Sichuan, No Apologies, at Lao Cheng Du in Flushing
Lao Cheng Du (fka Prince Noodle House)
37-17 Prince Street, Flushing, NY 11354 (b/n 37th and 38th; map); 718-886-5595
Service: Friendly and patient despite a language barrier
Setting: Bright white dining room short on frills
Must-Haves: Spicy radish with peanuts and tofu, Spicy ChengDu Chicken with Hot Pepper, Spice Mung Bean Jello Salad
Cost: $15 to $30 per person depending on how stuffed you want to be; lunch specials are $6.50
Compare To: Biang!, Legend, Cafe China
Grade: Recommended: A soulful, un-cheffy take on Sichuan cooking that succeeds far more than it stumbles
Use "home cooking" to describe a restaurant's menu and you give it a kind of death sentence. The comfort food is familiar and well meaning—and ever so slightly boring.
That's a shame, because we all know at least one home cook who isn't like that at all—whose cooking is raw and unafraid, maybe a little off-kilter and all the better for it, who uses a few too many lumps of butter or extra licks of salt. What they lack in cheffy respect for balance they make up for in pure conviction, and you always hope they invite you over for dinner.
Give this kind of home cook a restaurant and they won't be making pork chops and applesauce.
Or at least Big Sister Zhu won't, and she isn't at Lao Cheng Du in Flushing, a Cantonese restaurant that recently transformed itself into a Sichuan one with her running the kitchen.* Zhu developed a reputation for unabashedly spicy and unconventional cooking from her food stall days; now her take on Sichuan cuisine sprawls across a 100+ item menu, and if it's not the most refined restaurant of its kind in New York, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
* The owners are the same and the English signage still reads Prince Noodle House. Read our friend Joe DiStefano's first look and primer here.
You know something is special about Lao Cheng Du as soon as you walk up to the cold appetizer display at the front of the dining room. Whole fried fish ($7) glisten with chili oil; thinly sliced sausages—a good 90% fat—smell as citrusy and bright as they taste. They are both very good, but even better are the Diced Rabbit with Red Chili Sauce ($8) and Spicy Radish, Peanut, and Bean Curd ($5).
The former is a pile of peanuts, scallions, and chilled poached rabbit, riddled with bones that force you to slow down and appreciate picking it apart for morsels of meat. The latter should be in New York bars under penalty of law: tiny cubes of chewy marinated tofu jumbled with peanuts and crunchy pickled radish in a thin but incendiary sauce of chili oil. You'll want to stop eating once the dizziness kicks in, but go ahead and try.
Venture into the rest of the menu and you'll need to do some digging. Nine out of ten items carry the spicy chili icon, but they don't all mean it. Unless you read Chinese you'll be left decoding what's different about the three columns called "Delicacies," or what "Enhanced Pork" might mean, or what distinguishes ChengDu Spicy Chicken with Hot Pepper ($14) from House Special ChengDu Spicy Chicken ($28). Despite their lack of English, the wait staff are on your side, and their patience and helpfulness as you figure out your order could be studied by Manhattan restaurants.
As it turns out, the non-special Spicy Chicken with Hot Pepper is what's frequently called Chongqing chicken elsewhere: fried bits of chicken legs and wings frolicking in a ball pit of dried chilies. As with the rabbit, the chicken is bone-in, and it's crisp but also moistened with a faintly sweet glaze. You take your time with it, picking the bones out of every tender piece, prolonging the burn as you do so. It's memorably delicious.
The mapo tofu (Bean Curd with Spicy Minced Pork; $10) is less so, as is the dry-style Spicy Minced Pork with Vermicelli ($10). But I don't regret ordering either of them; they're savory more than hot, a little bland in an appealing way that balances out the heat of other dishes. It's an easy mistake to go full throttle at a Sichuan restaurant with nothing but spicy items—you can literally end up in tears—and these quiet players round out the table nicely. You could say the same about the [not] Spicy Double Cooked Pork ($10), though it's more sweet than the others. The pork belly's edges pick up some char from the wok, and its flavorful fat gives a little pull to the teeth.
The cooking occasionally appears to be a little monochromatic. Zhu's spiciest offerings are dizzy-making as they should be, but sometimes there's not enough numbing ma to balance the burning la, or sufficient sweetness to tame a blast of salt. The food at Lao Cheng Du is more gutsy than most of the city's well-respected Sichuan spots, and in its own way just as thoughtful, but the wily home cook's sword cuts both ways.
The solution may be to dig in to a chilled dish of Spicy Mung Bean Jello Salad ($5), a particularly fresh and wobbly liang fen in a sauce of sweet black vinegar, chili, and cilantro. Sweet, sour, hot, and herbal flavors vie for your attention, but in a deliberate, orchestrated kind of way that's anything but noisy. Also surprisingly multilayered, a simple dish of Asparagus with Yibin Veggie Buds ($12) bolstered by nubbins of ground pork that have carried some lard along for the ride. The crisp stalks take well to the floral-funky flavor of the pickled vegetables, which have been dry-fried into something even meatier than the pork.
There are missteps you should avoid, like a whole fried tilapia soaked in an insipidly sweet chili sauce, or a mess of pork belly steamed with ground rice powder and canned peas that approximates English cafeteria food more than the cooking of Chengdu. But these were the exceptions to otherwise very happy meals. Lao Cheng Du might be one of those restaurants where you have to order "right" for best results, but it doesn't seem that hard to get something good.
If I were to compare the place to anywhere, it'd be to Biang!, where most of the fun comes in an elemental interplay of textured starchy things and an addictive mother sauce. Big Sister Zhu's food is more varied, but the ethos is the same: make something earnest and delicious and a little rough around the edges, no apologies. Who are you calling scruffy?