The first time I walked into Szechwan Best, a cozy spot near an Alhambra movie-theater complex, the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was playing on a big flat-screen TV — legions of bright acrobats, a torch-bearing gymnast flying around the stadium like a pyromaniac Tinker Bell, fou drums pounded by 5,000 people who might as well have been one. It’s what Busby Berkeley would have done if he’d had the money — $100 million, more or less. All the workers at the restaurant, chefs and busboys, waiters and dishwashers, sat around a big table covered with Chinese snacks, as unwilling to get up as Italians gathered around a soccer game, and until the final bursts of fireworks, the few customers were like happy guests at a party, part of the family for an hour.
The restaurant became well-known outside Alhambra after the big earthquake in Sichuan last May, when it was an informal gathering place for the community and an easy location for reporters to talk to local Sichuanese. It wasn’t that long ago when followers of the local Chinese restaurant scene grew excited when they found a cook or two who’d actually been to Sichuan; now there are thousands of native Sichuanese in the San Gabriel Valley (many of them landing in the foot-massage industry), and it is almost as easy to find twice-cooked pork or a bowl of dan dan mian in the area now as it is to get a plate of chow mein.
Szechwan Best is fitted into a space that has housed several Sichuan restaurants in the past few years, some of them among the best in the region. The current model, whose Chinese name Google-translates as “Sichuan Museum,” is probably the sleekest of the incarnations: spare and well-lighted, art on the walls, a discreet glass case protecting the chile-red squashes, pickled green peppers, pressed tofu and cold tripe that make up the all-but-mandatory first courses here, along with the crisp, oily green-onion pancakes and the delicate, thin-skinned Sichuan wontons in red oil. The fuqifeipan, almost-transparent slices of beef marinated in chile and vinegar, are especially good here. Someday, I’d love to taste the dish made with the traditional slivers of lung.
The cooking of Chengdu, the region’s capital, is reputed to be somewhat milder, less pungent than the legendarily fierce cooking of hot, humid Chungking — not to mention the San Gabriel restaurant Chung King. The food at Szechwan Best, whose chef is from Chengdu, tends to have a bit less chile punch than the standard dishes at some of the area’s other Sichuan restaurants, where enthusiasm for fresh, pickled, ground and scorched dry chiles can sometimes land like a flaming rabbit punch to the base of your skull.
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So where water-boiled fish, a soupy, scarlet stew that is often the spiciest dish in a Sichuan restaurant, can often be hot enough to knock out a cow, the chef at Szechwan Best has a free hand with Sichuan peppercorns instead, whose effect is kind of a buzzy freeform numbness, like a weak electrode applied to your upper palate. (A sip of cool water afterward will often taste like Brazilian guarana.) The Sichuan fried chicken at some restaurants can look like a cartoonist’s parody of spicy food — tiny, crunchy nuggets all but lost among a blizzard of burnt dry chiles, supposedly used for their aroma rather than their heat — Szechwan Best’s fragrant version looks tamer, almost manageable for a chilephobe, and it is sodium and Sichuan peppercorn that sizzle on your tongue. (I especially like Szechwan Best’s version of the dish made with fish filets, which pick up the nuances of the seasoning even better than the bird.) There is a great dish of twice-cooked pork, too, sliced like bacon and fried with Chinese leeks — Fuchsia Dunlop’s wonderful Sichuan cookbook quotes a Chengdu duck vendor as saying that in the old days, everybody in the neighborhood would know when a family was cooking twice-cooked pork, so captivating was its smell.
The waiters here will probably try to talk you into ordering the excellent salt-and-pepper spareribs instead of the steamed version that is one of the restaurant’s specialties, but the dish, which comes out looking like an inverted bowl of oatmeal, is worth a little perseverance — fingers of meat and chewy gristle entombed in a hemisphere of taro crumbs and sweet potato, scented with a blend of aromatics closer to pumpkin-pie spice than to five-spice, and laced with enough Sichuan pepper to numb the palate of an ox.
Dessert, if you make it that far, will probably be a fortune cookie, but you may luck into peanut-stuffed glutinous rice balls served in a sweet soup, a warm, refreshing masterpiece.
Szechwan Best, 621 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 289-9200. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$48; lunch specials $5.95-$6.95. Recommended dishes: cold appetizers; green-onion pancake; steamed spareribs with sweet potato; boiled fish in hot sauce; spicy fried fish filet.