Turning the corner onto St. Mary’s Street in Brookline amid the snow and slush, my friend Seth perked up: He could smell the chiles from here, and he already approved. A group of friends and I had walked for half an hour to get here, slopping through the cold for the chance to warm ourselves up—mouths and all—at Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline, the fiery, fantastic Chinese restaurant with four Boston-area locations.
Walking inside—especially in from the cold—brings a sense of efficient comfort, an unpretentious amalgam of tile ceilings, dineresque seating and dashes of Chinese art framed on the walls. There’s no need for fanciness here. This operation is all about the food, a single-minded focus that owner Li Zhong and head chef Liu Lijun brought with them from Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital. The pair are committed to authenticity, serving up delicious dishes and correctives to a notion that “Szechuan” is less a cuisine from China’s misty, mountainous southern province and more a code phrase for “chili oil and peppercorns.”
The menu coaxes us away from that Sichuan-as-spice fallacy, offering up a suite of appetizers that give diners a way to dip their toes in the water. (That said, the more adventurous can gun straight for the “Sichuan Delicacies” just below, all of which run spicier.) Perhaps the best are their scallion pancakes, their crispy, still-hot exteriors gently protecting a buttery, flaky interior dotted with herby scallions. It’s almost impossible to think of ways to improve upon them—and then the waitress brings over a small dish of soy sauce for it. The pancakes don’t need it, but I’m a sucker for the added saltiness and flavor—and dabbing some on does nothing to diminish the pancakes’ fantastic crunch.
The scallion pancakes.
The deliciousness—and the spice—only goes up from there. Helpfully, the menu offers up chili peppers next to most menu items. One means that the food is “hot and spicy”; get two chili peppers, and you can bet that the food is “very spicy.” They mean it when they say it—the food will roast and toast you—but it’s not punitive in its heat. Each dash of burn is more than matched with rich flavor. It’s true for the beef with spicy chili sauce (two peppers), each peppercorn-flecked piece of beef and bak choi bathed in broth and chili oil to scrumptious effect. It’s true for the dried chicken with chili sauce (one pepper), each squared-off, orange-brown piece fried to a light crisp. They explode with flavor, each succulent piece like a savory, chili-infused firecracker.
Pan fried noodles with vegetables.
And it’s true for the vegetable pan-fried noodles (no peppers), perhaps the most unwieldy of the dishes we ordered: a bed of water chestnuts, broccoli, bak choi, and baby corn dribbled over a bed of crunchy noodles that, at their center, had soaked up the vegetables’ juices. Dividing up the dish four ways was easily the most uncomfortable part of the meal but well worth it. The crackle of the noodles, in contrast with the tender baby corn, makes for a satisfying vegetarian treat.
The dried chicken with spicy chili sauce.
As we finished up our meal—snapping up our final mouthfuls of rice and fully thawed from our walk in the cold—my friends and I exchanged glances, our faces gently reddened by the spice and the joy at finding such delicious food. “Yeah, we’re going to need to make this a thing,” Seth says. I’m happy to say I agree.
1004 Beacon St, Brookline; 617-277-4227
OPEN Daily for lunch and dinner (closes at 10:30 PM Friday and Saturday, 9:30 PM otherwise).
PRICES $4 to $25.
To see Sichuan Gourmet on Google Maps, please click here.
My Four-Hour Challenge
- 2:00-3:00 PM – Eat at Sichuan Gourmet, take notes and photograph food
- 3:00-4:20 PM – Back to MIT (by way of BU’s Insomnia Cookies)
- 4:20-6:00 PM – Write review in Microsoft Word, transfer to WordPress
- 6:00-6:20 PM – Wrangle with WordPress media uploads, add embedded Google Map