For years now, the conversation about Szechuan cooking in Philadelphia has begun with Han and ended with Dynasty. This has been the case pretty much ever since the mini-chain’s ace, the immensely entertaining and potty-mouthed sprite Han Chiang, rerouted his attention from the ’burbs to the urb. The Old City restaurant set the gears turning for a blitzkrieg expansion, with Han Dynasties reigning in Manayunk, University City, Cherry Hill and soon, if rumors are to be believed, New York.
In Cedar Park, a mile or so southwest of Han’s outpost on the upper fringe of Penn’s campus, a challenger rises: Chili Szechuan. Opened in February by a certain Mr. Ma — the best English-speaking employee knew him by no other name — this humble, 35-seat, persimmon-colored cafe is trying to crack Philly’s Szechuan monopoly, one screaming-scarlet tofu-pudding hot pot a time. Based on my visits, Mr. Ma, who is also the chef and a native of China’s Szechuan province, is going to need a bigger chisel.
The tofu pudding, one of half a dozen “flavors” at Chili Szechuan, was my favorite. Hunks of silky white bean curd stood in sharp relief against a backdrop of shimmering Plagues-of-Egypt-red chile oil. The tofu was so soft, so delicate, it was like eating panna cotta with chopsticks. Even the gentlest pressure pierced the pieces, making this dish a proposition in both blind pleasure and committed tenderness.
There was chicken, too. (As with all the “flavors,” you pick your protein: chicken, fish, shrimp, etc.) And vegetables. In the pudding situation, I think. To be honest, I was too captivated by the tofu and how the heat of the chile oil built and built the lower and lower I dipped into the bowl to notice. The oil unleashed its mysterious numbing compounds, and soon everything tingled and tasted like flowers. It’s such an unusual, almost giddy sensation, being numbed by food.
A few other choices reached the tofu pudding’s heights; I found Mr. Ma’s pickled chile style, which I tried with chopped bits of rabbit that were more bone than meat, edgier and more brightly sour than Han’s. The tender, dry-cooked green beans in a side dish exploded like long, skinny chile-and-garlic grenades. The seafood soup played peacemaker, an equalizing tonic of slightly viscous, clear seafood-based broth rife with chopped shrimp, tender squid and tofu curd and skin. Though not spicy, it packed far more flavor than its neutral palette suggested, each spoonful ending on a welcome grace note of cilantro and mild brine.
Direct comparisons between Chili Szechuan and Han Dynasty may be unfair, but they’re difficult to avoid with so much overlap between the menus. Circumvent this problem by avoiding the doppelgängers; undersalted, Chili Szechuan’s chunky, clunky Szechuan-style cucumbers couldn’t compete with H.D.’s infallible specimens. Their chile-oiled dumplings, dead ringers with their wavy half-moon shape and minced-pork filling, had an odd, underlying bitterness no amount of canned soda or Arizona Iced Tea (the extent of the beverage selection, stocked in a self-serve refrigerator) could wash away. The intoxicating fragrance of toasted cumin heralded the Szechuan staple of cumin lamb, but the thin, tender strips of wok-fried meat bordered on mealy.
In addition to dan dan noodles and dry pots, Chili Szechuan’s crossover includes an “Americanized” section of soupy, sweet Chinese takeout standards: orange beef, sesame chicken and the like. But unlike Han Dynasty, which trumpets its disdain for General Tso and his posse, Chili Szechuan simply sidesteps them with the stronger selection of the offbeat, unusual and nose-to-tail. Think preserved-egg soup and honeycombed garters of tripe in chile oil doubled-down with the addition of fatty ox tongue.
“So the spicy chile frog,” I prompted the sole waitress one sunny afternoon. “Is that the legs?”
She regarded me with a bemused expression, the way a waiter at Cochon would if I’d asked him if their pork-belly entree was vegan. “It’s all the frog,” she answered, and to her credit, went into the kitchen to double-check. Yep, all the frog, and as appealing as chopped amphibian backs sounded, I took a pass for the slightly less unusual rabbit.
Candy tremella soup was a first for me, a spoonable dessert masquerading as a health tonic. It starred a gelatinous, parasitic fungus (mmm!) suspended in a thick, clear broth like a jellyfish floating through corn syrup. Tripe-like in texture with a mild earthy flavor, the tremella wasn’t as strange as it sounds, and much less so than the hot, sugary broth. Tart goji berries and wrinkled red dates, two ingredients commonly used in these traditional medicinal brews, joined the aquarium, but it’s hard to imagine the latter’s mushy flesh and olive-like pits making patients feel anything but queasy.
There were other ups and down: dynamite dongpo pork (up); hot-and-sour noodles that were neither (down); addictive, deep-fried pucks of Szechuan pumpkin cake (up); shredded potato with long hots that was like undercooked hash browns at a cut-rate diner (down). Service was pleasant in a taciturn way, prices scraped the bottom of the guilt-inducing barrel and the outsized portions ensured leftovers for the next two days. Chili Szechuan might not be at the level of its biggest rival, but it should, at the very least, be in the city’s Szechuan conversation.
CHILI SZECHUAN | 4626 Baltimore Ave., 215-662-0888, chiliszechuan.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Appetizers, $2.50-$7.95; entrees, $7.95-$18.95; desserts, $4.95-$6.95.