While the skill of a Szechuan chef may be assessed through their ability to balance four primary flavor components—ma (numbing), la (hot), xian (fresh) and xiang (fragrant)–it is in their chili oil that one detects their passion. Chili oil is personal. It leaves its mark both figuratively and in an ombre ring of red on the plate. Chili oil is alchemical. It expresses more than the sum of the peppers, spices and oil of which it’s made.
“The chili oil, that’s special,” says Dandan, who runs the front of the house like clockwork while her husband turns out a roster of Szechuan (also spelled Sichuan) dishes. “Every Szechuan restaurant has their own chili oil, and every Szechuan chili oil is different. We don’t sell it, but lots of the customers suggest that we could. My husband says no. That’s our secret!” That well-guarded recipe is all the more reason to plan a stop anytime you are in the area, or even if you are not.