You know you are not in a generic "Chinese" restaurant when items like General Tso's chicken and Orange Flavor Beef are relegated to their own section on menu under the title "American Chinese Food." You will find these and other familiar members of the Chinese American canon dismissively situated, like the kid's section, in the back of the164 item menu at Hot Kitchen in the East Village. Craving Kung Bao chicken? You will find it on the lunch menu, but you will likely be frowned upon for requesting it at dinner. Hot Kitchen is as serious about the authenticity of its Sichuan cooking as its chilies are hot. And the restaurant lives up to its name through the liberal use of heat and spice.
Take the Shredded Beef with Spicy Green Pepper ($14), a tangle of green peppers, shredded spears of ginger, and slivers of tender beef round. The heat starts off low and slow, allowing the flavor of the meat to come through before the ramping up to a fiery crescendo. It is one of the few dishes from the "proper" menu that is available as a lunch special. Order it and the waiter will compliment your choice, and not just because it cost a $1 more than the American Chinese offerings at $8.50 (comes with soup or soda and rice).
The Sichuan Hot and Sour Soup (small, pictured, $2.50; large $5) is no better than an average rendition. It's suitably viscous, not especially spicy, and it seems dumbed down for the lunch menu. Certainly it doesn't have anything adventurous in it like pig's blood.
You are better off starting out with the Spicy Sichuan Dumplings ($6), tender ear-sized pockets stuffed with minced pork and served in an oily sauce laced with sichuan pepper. The flavor is raunchy and earthy with a pleasing heat.
A heaping plate of just-wilted and wonderfully fresh pea shoots ($14) spiked with slivers of garlic offers some respite from the heat.
The Smoked Tea Duck ($19) comes with the sought-after crispy skin, properly rendered fat, and tender flesh. But the bird can attain a disconcerting acridity, as if the tea leaves are burned at too high a temperature.
Hot Kitchen is a stripped-down dining room, and the service can range from serviceable to friendly (ordering off of the the American Chinese menu will likely illicit the former reaction). Speaking of the American Chinese and lunch menus: they are clearly a compromise, and speak to the economic realities of operating a restaurant in the pricey East Village. Certainly the vision here is purer than that of Grand Sichuan on St. Marks, which offers a far more expansive and universal menu. And when it comes down to the Sichuan dishes, Hot Kitchen holds its own.
About the author: Nick Solares is a NYC-based food writer and photographer. He has published Beef Aficionado since 2007, with the stated purpose of exploring American exceptionalism through the consumption of hamburgers and steak. He has written over 350 restaurant reviews for Serious Eats since 2008 and served as the creative director for the award-winning iPad app Pat LaFrieda's Big App for Meat. You can follow him on Instagram (@nicksolares) and Twitter (@beefaficionado).