Fiery Prawns at Flushing's Szechuan Gourmet

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[Photographs: Sam Bresnick]

The first thing that strikes you when entering Szechuan Gourmet is neither the restaurant's collection of miniature Buddhas nor its teeming fish tanks. It isn't necessarily the food, either. Instead, it is the diversity of pots, serving dishes, and other cooking apparatus that crowd each table. Circular woks with seafood soups and tiny metal pans resting above open flames dot the restaurant, as do large buckets, used to show customers the poor live fish that will soon serve as their lunch. It is no wonder that equipment abounds here, as the English menu has over 140 entries, ranging from jellyfish julienne to stir-fried duck tongues. The Chinese characters that clothe the walls offer even more dishes, but I'm afraid that those are reserved for Mandarin speakers only. The waiters, when asked the contents of various indistinguishable dishes, will most reply with short phrases such as "I like that," and "so tasty!"

This is not to say that quantity rules over quality at this Flushing eating institution. Despite the enormity of the menu, the "Sichuan Gourmet" portion of the menu is where many of the true gems lie. The Sautéed Prawns with Asparagus and Spicy Chili Minced Pork (16.95) is just one of these offerings. A prime example of the culinary virtues of ma la, the combination of scorching hot chiles with tingly Sichuan peppercorns, this dish leaves the palate happy, the nose runny, and the eyes teary.

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Visually it's also impressive, with deep reds, muddy browns, and bright greens that appropriately forecast its mix of spicy and refreshing flavors. The prawns are left unpeeled for a crunch to contrast against the tender minced pork. Though the sauce is soft and ragout-like, it packs serious heat thanks to an infusion of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn.

You taste these, and then come the asparagus and scallions, which offer some relief from the heat of the proteins and sauce. The dish is unrelentingly bold but not without balance. At $16.95, the prawns are pricier than more common Sichuan offerings of noodles and dumplings, but the depth these prawns reach is worth the extra dough.

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