Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 | 2:02 p.m.
Some like it hot. At J & J Szechuan Cuisine, also known simply as Szechuan, dishes are marked by zero, one, two or three chili symbols. Brother, they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
Vegas already has one restaurant specializing in this fiery central-Chinese form of cooking, the esteemed China Mama. But that place is owned by Taiwanese, and the big draw there is shao loong bao—the best juicy pork dumplings in the city.
What you are more likely to get at J & J is a pile of kidneys, lamb ribs, crispy pork or fried chicken, all covered with a flurry of spicy red chilies, dishes so hot that only a masochist or Szechuan native could eat them. The restaurant belongs to a family that ran Oriental Pearl in Alhambra, California, where the chicken with pickled peppers had me running to a phone to call the fire department.
- 5700 Spring Mountain Road, 876-5983.
- Daily, noon-1 a.m
- Suggested dishes: cold appetizers, $4.50; Szechuan sautéed sliced lamb, $9.99; crispy intestines with cucumber in special hot sauce, $10.99; twice-cooked pork, $7.99.
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This is a modest, prototypical Vegas Chinatown restaurant, decorated with beige-colored walls, fluorescent lanterns and tables lacquered to a high gloss. Service is warm but tentative (not everyone on the staff is proficient in English, so if you’re not conversant in Mandarin, don’t bother asking for dish descriptions.)
The menu, however, is mostly literal—no metaphorical stuff like Uncle Tai’s Ribs or Ants Climbing Three. And it’s also fully bilingual, as well as numbered, so there is no problem getting anything from it.
The take-out menu, incidentally, has a nice touch, one I’ve never seen on a Chinese menu. The bottom has a note in Spanish which reads “Te gusta la comida picante? ... Visitanos y prueba nuestra comida te gustara.” Translated: “Like spicy food? ... Then visit us and try ours, you’ll like it.” I take this to be more like, Hey, you think you can eat hot food? Bring it, homes.
Now, I wouldn’t want to get into a chili-eating contest with any ethnic group, be it Thai, Mexican, South Indian or Szechaun. But in terms of spiciness, the three-chili items on this menu match any in town. Take red braised-beef noodles, served in a glass dish, so that you can see red clear down to the bottom. Or fish with hot tofu in hot sauce, which sounds fairly innocent. Make that HOT!!!! sauce.
I prefer a tamer beginning to a meal here. Behind the counter is a cold-dish buffet, where you can pick three selections for just $4.50. I always start with cucumber with garlic—bright, green wedges whose garlic level is so intense it would turn Robert Pattinson into a pillar of salt. If you like sesame oil and funky animal parts, try pig ears with hot oil, wickedly crunchy and just a tad devo. Smoked fish is also delicious, and mild, a no-chili entry. The three-chili cold dish, bean-curd jelly with hot and spicy sauce, is so ridiculous I won’t even go there.
The best dishes are found under house specialties on the menu. The two-chili crispy intestines with cucumber in special hot sauce is terrific, and it will make you sweat like a UFC contender. Another two-chili entry, Szechuan sautéed sliced lamb, has the faint gaminess of venison, and a sharp bite.
It’s not all fire and brimstone, of course. I love the relatively mild twice-cooked pork, a Szechuan staple composed mostly of thinly sliced, stewed and sautéed pork, and a few types of stir-fried onions. A no-chili Chinese celery beef is delicious when mixed with steamed rice. Wonton in hot sauce, another dish marked with a single chili, comes in a homey bowl, and isn’t hot at all.
And of course there are vegetable and rice dishes, most of which are not hot, either. Ong choy (hollow vegetable) is a reedy relative of spinach, and has a sweet and salty tang to it. Here, it is done simply in garlic and oil, like great Roman pasta.
I’d come back for the fish-flavored eggplant, or the green beans with ground pork. I don’t recommend the sautéed green peppers in special sauce, though. They aren’t what we call green peppers at all, but rather whole ancho chilies in a brown sauce, around a dozen or so.
Twelve chilies are more than a man can take.