“Ant On The Tree.” That’s what my dining companion, minutes into his first visit to Sichuanese Cuisine, said he wanted for lunch. He didn’t know what it was, but he liked the name.
Ahead of the upcoming Olympics, the Chinese government has been working to rename restaurant dishes so that visitors have a better idea of what they’re ordering. “Husband and wife’s lung slice,” “Chicken without sexual life,” “The farmer is small to fry king,” and “Swallow to take the fish sand” are not necessarily user-friendly, or, in the case of “Government abuse chicken,” flattering. But they are certainly fun. (As am I, I’m sure, when I butcher foreign languages.)
Ant On The Tree is usually called “Ants climbing a tree”—a classic Sichuanese dish typically made with (mung) bean thread noodles and ground pork. Lift some strands of noodles, and the bits of pork cling to them like, well, ants climbing a tree. It’s a refreshing and economical dish; I love the transparent noodles and the bite of the chili bean paste. But on this day, at the normally red-hot Sichuanese Cuisine, the dish was too mild—despite asking them to make it super spicy. This has been a recurring problem for me in area restaurants, and I’m still looking for the best way to say I can handle the heat. Short of a providing a signed waiver that would baffle the waitstaff, I gather I need to say I lived in Chengdu and ask for a high level of ma la—numbing and spicy.
Still, I forgive Sichuanese Cuisine, as I’ve had plenty of other great dishes there, like their incredible cheap dumplings, MaPoDoFu (their spelling), dried cooked string beans, and the hot pots which are a fabulous deal. Next time I’m with a group and bury this dish in a big order, I’ll try the “Pork Bung with HaRaPeNo Chili” (sic, but not sick—I love offal and such). While there might be better Sichuanese food in Bellevue (namely, Bamboo Garden and Szechuan Chef), this is a fine hole-in-the-wall at my favorite food corner in Seattle: 12th and Jackson in Little Saigon. (This is where you can find, within steps, Seven Stars Peppers, Tamarind Tree, Lemongrass, Malay Satay Hut, and a bounty of banh mi and more at the bargain-priced Vietnamese delis.)
The problem at Sichuanese Cuisine is the menu. The best stuff (always, it seems) is on the specials board—in Chinese only. Unable to read the characters, I asked the waitress for an interesting, authentic, and spicy dish to go with the ants climbing a tree, and she said, “I’ll make you something special.” After eating an again underspiced but decent stir-fried chicken dish, I wanted to know what it was. She pointed to the specials board, where I could only read that it was $5.25, before she said “Flavor Chicken.” Compared to unflavored, I wondered? And just what was that flavor? Maybe the U.S. government should work on names here. Or maybe not. I kind of like the mystery of it all.
This originally appeared on Examiner on July 1, 2008.