July 11 2014 03:54 PM

Convoy District Sichuan spot leaves a numbing burn

A few of FuAn Garden’s cold appetizers
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

The history of Chinese food in this country is rife with mislabeling. The first "Chinese" food to gain popularity on these shores was "chop suey" which, of course, was never truly Chinese. Next came "Mandarin" cuisine that had little to do with the food actually served in the Forbidden City; it was, instead, a repertoire of dishes originating in Fujiian Province in China's southeast—the source of a major wave of Chinese immigration—presented as that which it was not. 

So, when "Szechuan" cuisine hit San Diego in the early 1980s, the food, not surprisingly, hardly resembled that of Sichuan Province. Rumor had it the stuff was supposed to be really spicy, and this stuff certainly was. But it was not Sichuan in style. Adding a bunch of arbol or Japones chiles to Fujiian dishes does not make them Sichuan.

But in the last half decade, real Sichuan cuisine has arrived. There are now at least four Sichuan restaurants on Convoy Street alone—Spicy City, Spicy House, Szechuan Chef and FuAn Garden (4768 Convoy St.). Instead of '80s-style Szechuan-by-chile, these restaurants feature spice-by-layer—heat from chiles interacting with numbing Sichuan peppercorns (a different '80s sensation), allowing otherwise mind-blowingly hot food to be enjoyed with a wide-open palate.

Meals start well at FuAn. The cold-appetizer bar offers some of FuAn's best food. Cold beef, pig's ear, tripe, cucumbers, bamboo shoots or the seaweed—it really doesn't matter which three dishes you pick; they will all be excellent. Soy, chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns conspire to simultaneously prepare you for what's to come and preview it. In reality, I'd be more than satisfied sourcing the entire meal from that bar.

Not everything at FuAn is that good. The boiled fish, a revelation at Spicy City, was just wrong at FuAn. Our waiter said it was swordfish. It wasn't. For that matter, it wasn't fresh. Far too much cornstarch in the sauce produced a disturbingly viscous texture. It was not a good dish.

The frog in green-chili hot sauce was not quite as bad. The frog itself was flavorful (and, yes, it tasted like chicken). But the sauce was so imprecise, so muddled in its flavors, that it detracted from the dish's focus rather than enhancing it. The home-style lamb seemed more Hunan in style than Sichuan, but the interaction of sweet garlic shoots and layers of chiles was addictive.

Better still were the spicy fried spareribs. At one level, frying spareribs certainly sounds gratuitous. What in the name of Jenny Craig is with the concept of taking such legendarily fatty meat and frying it? Why, flavor, of course. It just tastes good: caramelized on the outside and supremely moist and tender on the inside. Frankly, why would you ever want to eat ribs that weren't luxuriously, stupidly fatty. What would be the point? That's the message of this particular dish. 

The food at FuAn is, in the end, uneven. Its best dishes are excellent. Many others—most, perhaps—are not nearly so good. But, frankly, even those dishes are vastly superior to that which used to go out under the label of "Szechuan." 

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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