If you've been in a Sichuan restaurant -- an authentic Sichuan restaurant, that is -- no doubt you've noticed the most prominent feature: the cold table. Ranging from small, rolling units to permanent counters, the tables are front and center of any true Sichuan place. If you haven't ordered from the cold table, you've missed out on a great part of any Sichuan meal, namely the appetizers. Perhaps you've looked at the stainless steel tubs and wondered what those exotic-looking items were. So we thought we'd give a primer on common items and tell you: Don't fear the cold table.
Generally, items are seasoned with one or more of the following ingredients: sesame oil, chili oil, dried red peppers, red pepper flakes, garlic, cilantro and vinegar. Yet the variety is great enough that a plate of three choices isn't redundant in the slightest -- and with prices around $4, it's a great deal.
There is offal, and plenty to choose from: tongue, with its pure beefiness; tripe, turned orange from a chili oil wash, is both chewy and crunchy; gizzards; duck heads; duck necks; beef tendon with cilantro; "husband & wife" (fuqi feipan), which is thinly sliced beef with offal; chicken feet, either plain or marinated in soy sauce; and the omnipresent pig's ears, with their cartilaginous snapping crunch and pure pork flavor.
If this all sounds a bit too meat-intensive, not to worry, there are plenty of vegetable choices as well: peppers, drizzled with chili oil; broad beans; kimchi; shredded seaweed; a couple of different types of greens (including mustard greens) usually splashed with sesame oil and garlic; nearly translucent mung bean noodles; shredded daikon radish; garlicky chunks of cucumber; celery, also splashed with sesame oil; eggplant; shredded potato, lightly blanched then dashed with vinegar; and vinegary pickled green beans.
There also is tofu, either shredded or sliced, doused with spicy chili oil; peanuts mixed with salty, crunchy, tiny dried fish; and alkaline slices of bitter melon, which tastes like something green mixed with an aspirin.
Does a cold table automatically mean you're in a Sichuan restaurant? No. Small tables are found at Shanxi-style JTYH Restaurant as well as Shaanxi Gourmet, and the largest selections -- upwards of a dozen -- are found at Yunkun Garden and Yunnan Garden, two Yunnan-style restaurants that feature cuisine from the neighboring province of Sichuan.
Not all of the above-mentioned items are available at all times or at all restaurants. Selections vary from lunch to dinner and occasionally some other items will turn up. Also, don't be afraid to ask the staff about what's on the table when they aren't too busy -- as they'll walk you through what's available.