There was a feast of epic proportions under way a few weekends ago at the then month-old A Bite of Szechuan. At the center of the sunlit dining room the staff had pushed nearly half the restaurant’s tables together to accommodate a family of some two dozen grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins, all celebrating some happy occasion with a long, leisurely Sunday lunch.
The new restaurant, specializing in the often face-numbing food of China’s southwestern province, is a bit of an outlier in this part of West Rogers Park even though it resides along a stretch of Lincoln Avenue that’s home to a fascinating and sundry collection of eateries that includes a Vietnamese-owned po’boy shop, a kosher Argentine steak house, a Polish bakery, and a Guatemalan-Salvadoran family restaurant whose owners did a fair job of erasing the stains after the infamous Money Shot vacated the premises. Right next door to A Bite of Szechuan there’s the Angry Crab, the first Chicago restaurant to cash in on the Asian seafood-boil craze that’s since spread across the city. In fact, the restaurant that preceded A Bite of Szechuan was the Rim, the very first spot to bite the Angry Crab’s style. I’m betting a kitchen capable of producing the molten, buzzing head trip that’s the welcome side effect of eating Sichuanese food stands a better chance in this space than one that merely apes an all-you-can-eat crawfish joint.
It certainly seemed that way on that Sunday, when three servers hustled over to the party and back with plate after plate of spicy beef tendon, chile-oil pig ear, pork with garlic sauce, and browned panfried dumplings stuffed with pork and sea cucumber. They were also swift to meet the demands of the other tables on the periphery, occupied by diners lingering over bowls of dan dan noodles or roiling hotel pans filled with whole grilled black bass swimming among bits of bean sprout, pig’s blood curd, or lotus root slices.
Meanwhile, the open kitchen offered glimpses of chef Dingguo Cheng cranking out plate after bowl after hot pot with focused intensity, never once stumbling into the weeds. The succession of dishes was relentless: sizzling lamb with cumin, spicy fried fish fillets tossed with blackened dried chiles, piles of smoked duck parts with skin glistening like candy.
And that’s why A Bite of Szechuan seems to have already attracted a devoted following in its brief existence. Champions of the restaurant at LTHForum have generated a slight dilution of the homogenously Chinese gene pool that seemed to have instantly gotten word that Cheng, formerly chef at Chinatown’s grilled-fish hot-pot sensation Ma Gong La Po, had arrived on the north side.
Those butane-fueled hotel pans housing whole bass or tilapia luxuriating in a vigorously boiling red hell pool are also the main attraction at A Bite of Szechuan, and it’s mostly the case at lunch or dinner that the majority of tables are seated with people dissecting the contents with their chopsticks and sinking perforated ladles into the angry brew to net supplementary morsels of watercress, mushroom, tripe, or black fungus, all dripping with flavor, detoured to bowls of absorbent white rice, before rising up to the mouth.
A handful of dry hot pots have made the journey north as well, including the intriguing “gluttonous frog hot pot,” which somehow draws less of the menu reader’s attention than “dry pot duck head.” The latter is a large circular pan piled high with dried and pickled red chiles and bisected waterfowl skulls. It’s a dish that requires as much, if not more, digital assistance as the bags of greasy crustaceans next door. There’s a lot of edible bird material on and in the skulls; the skin is chewy, the tongue is a meaty prize, and the brain a custardy treat, but it’s the thick, savory, almost vinegary sauce that makes wrestling with the heads worth the effort.
There are other ways to get dirty. You can, of course, order spicy crawfish by the pound, or whole crabs plucked alive from a tank in the entryway—which might be the primary source of confusion when people stumble in looking for the Angry Crab only to find tables full of people happily nibbling crispy deep-fried pork ribs or house-made pickled cabbage.
To name this restaurant A Bite of Szechuan is a hilarious understatement relative to the manifold array of tactile pleasures on the menu. Cold chunks of bone-in rabbit and chicken in chile oil require a certain degree of lingual and dental dexterity to extract the tiny shards of bone from the silky, tender flesh. Long, slippery, square rice-gluten noodles will test your chopstick skills as they slither from your grasp like living serpents. Scraps of cumin-scented lamb contrast with crunchy, wok-charred chunks of green bell pepper and onions, while beef treated with a similarly tenderizing process lurks among soft tofu half sunken in a pool of crimson oil.
Eating is athletic at A Bite of Szechuan, but the time spent working at it is time to appreciate the great degree of variance in the seasoning. While much of the food may appear to be drenched in the same chile-saturated rufous hue, it’s a currency that’s traded in many denominations across the menu. The aforementioned boiled beef with tofu is pure chile heat. That rabbit buzzes with the Sichuan peppercorns’ storied ma la electricity. The pickled red chiles with spicy fish fillets could be eaten by the fistful with little to no ill effect, while the cumin-dusted barbecue lotus root could join in a fantasy lineup of movie theater snacks.
The chile pepper and its varying extracts and infusions are endemic to the food at A Bite of Szechuan, but it’s well balanced against other flavors—the pickled, the fermented, the sweet, and the savory. Cold green jellied preserved duck egg is the sulfurous foil to diced tofu and pork floss. The deep, savory fermented funk of bean paste is the anchoring element of a bowl of ma po tofu. Kung pao chicken is licked with black vinegar, while crackly nuggets of lightly fried fish fillet tangle with just-cooked-through slivers of garlic. The intense salinity of the house pickled cabbage and long beans is a far cry from the Zhong’s dumplings in subtly sweet oil, or dan dan noodles, the pork-and-fermented-bean Sichuanese spaghetti bolognese.
There are a few sweets on the menu to broaden the flavor spectrum even further—fried sweet potato cakes, glutinous rice balls in sweet wine. But the large family at the center of the dining room that afternoon had opted for a custom cake from Rowie’s Bakery across the street, strengthening Filipino pastry’s reputation for versatility. A few months ago I griped about the user-friendly ersatz Sichuanese food at Won Fun in the Fulton Market district. A Bite of Szechuan is its polar opposite: an uncompromising expression of one of China’s great regional cuisines, quietly thriving in one of the city’s most interesting eating neighborhoods. v