A C for a Chili Place in Chinatown

6 Mar

Old Sichuan
65 Bayard St
Chinatown

The C grade was prominently displayed on Old Sichuan’s window. There were no apologies and no disclaimers that the C was only “temporary.” When Zio, who chose the restaurant for our group, noticed the grade, he shook his head. “Uh oh, they’re gonna have roaches,” he said with a resigned shrug.

But he really knew better. The C was, for our group, in some ways a badge of honor, rather than a scarlet letter. And the hostess, a very pleasant woman who’s gap-toothed smiled never wavered, showed no remorse, urging Zio and I inside despite our telling her we would wait a few moments for the others to arrive. She stuck with us—proudly pointing out the pictures of some of the dishes on the side of the window, totally oblivious that there was C grade next to them.

Some of Old Sichuan’s choices in pictures…and a C grade.

Zio’s eyes went directly to the picture of the ox tongue and tripe.

“You like spicy?” Our hostess inquired.

“That’s why we are here,” I replied.

“That a cold dish,” she said, referring to the ox tongue and tripe Zio was salivating over. “But spicy. Come in. We have table.”

There was no point in hanging around outside especially since the bags of garbage on the sidewalks of Bayard Street were piled high and more than a little ripe. We went in and were given a round table in the back room.

Before Zio could order his obligatory diet Coke (with lemon), the waiter brought us a plate of seaweed along with tea and ice water. Gerry and Rick arrived soon after. Gerry announced that Eugene would be a no-show due to a rare work commitment and that he just got a text from Mike from Yonkers that he would be a half hour late.

Seaweed, compliments of the chef.

While we waited, we put in two orders of Dan Dan Noodles and one of the picturesque, ox tongue and tripe.

The noodles came out first and if Dan Dan Noodles were a barometer for the quality of the food at a Szechuan restaurant, Old Sichuan was clearly a serious contender for top honors. The noodles were fresh; the chili and minced pork perfectly balanced along with the addition of sautéed greens. The dish was sublime.

Dan Dan noodles

We approached the ox tongue and tripe hesitatingly. Rick was even more apprehensive thinking there might be chopped nuts; cashews, almonds, or walnuts, in the dish. We didn’t want to have to insert Zio’s soda straw as a breathing tube if Rick’s throat constricted due to an allergic reaction to the nuts. Peanuts were apparently okay, and that’s what we believed was in the dish along with chilies and tender slices of ox tongue and tripe. So Rick threw caution to the wind and speared a few slices with his chopstick.

Ox tongue and tripe

Needless to say, he survived which was a good and bad thing. We were happy we didn’t have to resort to a tableside tracheotomy, but that also meant there would be less of the delicious ox tongue and tripe for the rest of us, especially since we thought it would be the right thing to save some for Mike from Yonkers if and when he ever showed up.

Some of Old Sichuan’s specials that day.

And he did, just as we were about to order double cooked pork for him. He had no issue with our choice for him, but I was a little concerned about the baby lamb with green pepper I was considering.

“Is it cruel to eat baby lamb?” I asked our table of self proclaimed food geniuses. No one had an answer either way, so I went ahead and ordered it.

Fish in a little “hot pot.”

Zio wanted fish; he just wasn’t sure which one; the options were plentiful. He finally decided on fish and sour cabbage in a “little hot pot.” Rick splurged and ordered the tea smoked duck, while Gerry deliberated between mushroom with “grandma’s” sauce which would have been worth it for the name alone and our waiter’s recommendation; something called “sautéed sponge gourd.”

“What is that?” Rick asked when the platter of pale green vegetables arrived.

“Sponge Gourd, Square Pants,” Gerry replied, straight faced.

And, I must confess, they were the best sponge gourd square pants I’ve ever had….and I’ve had them all over town.

Sponge gourd, square pants.

We made quick work of our food; there were no losers among any of our entrees proving that Old Sichuan might be an oldie, but it was certainly a goodie. The only misstep was when we asked for our check.

The final tally was not unexpectedly, considered we all had two beers and that tea smoked duck and Zio’s little hot pot were extravagances for our group, over budget. But what was more disconcerting was when our gap-toothed hostess took our bill before Gerry had contributed his share. He had to make a run to an ATM: cash only at Old Sichuan.

I wondered where she was taking our money and followed her to a table up front where she gave it to a man who had been eating at a table near us. “He pay for you,” she said.

I watched as she gave him our money.

Bewildered now, I stared at the stranger. “You’re paying for us?”

“No,” he said. “Not for you.”

Apparently he wanted to pay for one of his companions before said companion was given the check and insisted on paying. The hostess realized her mistake and laughed.

“But we haven’t got all the money there yet,” I tried to tell her. She just continued to laugh and smile and took our money into the kitchen.

I peered into the kitchen and saw that she, along with our waiter, were counting our money.

I shrugged and went back to our table.

A few moments later, she returned and began counting out our money for us, indicating that there was not enough there.

“Yes, we know,” we said.

Still not sure if she understood, she left the unfulfilled check on the table, smiled, laughed a little, and walked away.

Gerry returned and we finally totaled out the check. We were about to leave when our waiter said not to go just yet. He had something for us. A pancake filled with melted chocolate. They were tiny squares with toothpicks speared in them. I picked one up. The hot chocolate oozed out and blistered my finger. I put it back on its tray. I didn’t really want it. I was saving what room for dessert next door at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

Black sesame ice cream for dessert next door.

Old Sichuan was very good, but its location right next to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory made it a standout and Gerry, Mike from Yonkers and I took our cones and happily ate them on the sidewalk amongst the piles of garbage bags and the putrid stench wafting from them.

One Response to “A C for a Chili Place in Chinatown”

  1. Gregory Lorenz March 23, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    I’ve been meaning to go in there forever. Thanks to you intrepid gastronauts I’ll be there soon.

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