101 Ways to Fry a Pepper

At Bamboo Garden, the Sichuan food's sophisticated, but the heat's a little low.

The Sichuanese have a scholarship of spiciness that is unfamiliar to most of us. They separate la (the burning flavor of capsicum) from ma (the numbing, tingling effect of Sichuan peppercorns), for instance. Within la, their cooks distinguish between the smoldering heat of toasted chiles, the warm thrum of chili oil, and the herbaceous, sharp sting of green chiles. Stacy Zhong, the owner of Bamboo Garden in Bellevue, isn't from Sichuan province, but she's hired two chefs and a general manager who were raised in Chengdu, the landlocked province's culinary capital. Their menu reads like a thesaurus of hotness: Running down the pork column, you'll see smoked pork with wild chili pepper, shredded pork with hot garlic sauce, dry-cooked hot intestine, intestine with fish in hot and spicy gravy, and kidney with pickled pepper sauce. This is not the "Sichuan" and "Hunan" cuisine of the 1970s, which was basically Chinese-American food hyped up with dried peppers, but far more nuanced. I could taste how varied and distinctive the spiciness was in two of the cold dishes I started my first meal with. Both were sauced in infused oil, which Sichuan chefs use much as French-trained cooks use butter, and the sight—especially since so much of the oil is Mao-red—can be alarming. The "tripe with strange-flavor sauce," believe it or not, may just be the best way for a tripe neophyte to fall in love with the stuff. The sauce, poetically named because it balances all of the basic flavors in the Sichuan palate, enfolded the faint organ funk of the slices of velvety tripe into its intricate counterpoint of flavors, and the Sichuan peppercorn coda left my lips abuzz. The Sichuan gold noodles were a tangle of wheat noodles, the kink not completely cooked out of them, in a pool of soy, vinegar, and chili oil. The noodles wept oil as we slurped them up from our plates (relax—you're not supposed to down it all). The sauce balanced sour, salty, and warming notes, quite a contrast to the sweet-numbing-fragrant-spicy tones of the tripe. Bamboo Garden is found in a mini-mall just south of Bellevue Square. Zhong's decor—a grid of dark wood tables set among vermilion and gold walls, in a forest of plastic green bamboo—reminded me of the rebel camp in House of Flying Daggers. On my first visit (a slow night), the service was fantastic. Not in the "Would the lady like more water?" way, but chatty, even motherly. Our server, who turned out to be the manager, Ming Niao, combined the happy shamelessness of an infomercial host—we must have turned down her smiling "offer" of a strawberry smoothie a half-dozen times, including a last try when she delivered the check—with a readiness to talk about the food and make good recommendations, such as the gold noodles. The second time I went, it was a packed Friday night. A couple of bussers were obviously staving off newbie panic, and the head waiter was a little gruff. Still, he took the time to steer me away from dan dan noodles, one of Chengdu's classic street foods, to the line just below, labeled "Cheng Du Hand Shaven." "I'll pay for the difference," he pressed. (Admittedly, it was only $1.) Hand-shaved noodles, which are made by using a cleaver to flick-flick-flick long strips of dough off a ball into a pot of boiling water, can be dense and chewy. Though Bamboo Garden's looked a little like banana slugs, they were tender, slippery things, and the mildly tingly sesame-paste-thickened broth they floated in was redolent of the pine-grapefruit scent of Sichuan peppercorns. The menu has 157 items, plus the Sichuanese hot pot (a deal at $12.95 per person, by the way), and even if you stick with Zhong's favorite dishes, marked with a thumbs-up sign, you can get lost among all your options. I'll be returning regularly to make my way through them. There's plenty of food for chile-shy diners, too, such as fish with pine nuts, brothy "Eastern pots," or baby bok choy, stir-fried with plump black mushrooms and garlic. The completely pepper-free, camphor wood and tea–smoked duck—an appetizer that could double as an entrée—was phenomenally tender, its meat fuschia from the smoke and seasonings, its smoke flavor light, its skin deep-fried to melt off much of the fat and crisp up the exterior. The dishes I didn't rave over were only bad in comparison to the dishes I did. Lightly pickled chunks of cucumber dressed in chili oil and soy offered a bit of crunch and not much more. The flavors were muddied in both the kung pao chicken and a Sichuan-style whole fish, whose head and tail peeked out from underneath a heap of peppers, scallions, and bamboo shoots. Two of the stir-fried dishes were better: Chongqing chicken, coated in spices and tossed with green beans and dried chiles, pulsed with a dry, toasty heat. The lamb with cumin, a Muslim-Chinese specialty that doesn't come from Sichuan but I can never resist ordering, tasted like the product of an exchange program between the Kabul and Chengdu cooking schools. Still, I was disappointed that the chefs at Bamboo Garden kowtow too much to the Seattle fear of spice. The aromas, the complexity are all there, but the cooks have muffled the spice to avoid disrupting anyone's peace of gut. The Sichuan love of chiles is not just aesthetic preference, by the way: It's perfect for dispelling the region's dampness and chill. Which also makes the cuisine perfect for Western Washington. Just ask your acupuncturist. It's not the burn I crave, it's the sensation. The most vivid Sichuan meals I've ever eaten, in both California and Beijing, were two-hour meals of sweating, gasping pleasure, my lips prickling and buzzing, my brain able to map the fjordlike contours of my internal organs as they digested the meal. The best of those meals have left me rapturous, drunk not just on cooling beer but on endorphins and aromas. At Bamboo Garden, I walked out impressed and pleased with my meals, but clear-eyed. Two dishes, though toned down, came close to setting my eyebrows alight. Bamboo Garden's ma po tofu is 50 times better than the tofu-in-spicy-ketchup versions most places serve. The creamy texture of the tofu cubes is a coquettish wink that fools you into relaxing before the bum rush of fermented black beans, roasted chiles, garlic, and the invisible sting of dozens of Sichuan peppercorns. But the real test of endurance is a dish called "water-boiled fish," here translated as "sliced fish with hot and spicy gravy." It's famous throughout China because it cranks up both ma and la spiciness to a deafening pitch. When I dredged my spoon through the bowl of opaque red oil and minced garlic, it pulled up cabbage leaves, Chinese celery, and fish fillets poached so delicately that they melted on the tongue. Of course, my tongue, palate, and lips felt like they were melting, too. I went back for seconds, then thirds, before retreating to the safety of a bowl of steamed rice. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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