Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Hot and authentic at Elk Grove’s Hidden Sichuan

From Hidden Sichuan, foreground, is the “magic chile” chicken. In the background: Xingjiang lamb.
From Hidden Sichuan, foreground, is the “magic chile” chicken. In the background: Xingjiang lamb. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Here’s the kind of foodie Greg Jung is: Twice, he has engineered family excursions to Portland, driving 10 hours for the sole purpose of sampling the 500 or so food carts clustered in “pods” throughout the city. Not surprisingly, he grew up in a restaurant environment.

On this chilly day, we were at a table inside the immaculate but understated Hidden Sichuan restaurant, tucked into one of the many shopping centers in Elk Grove. One wall is occupied by a mural depicting what looks like warriors in combat in some ancient Chinese city. On another wall is a TV screen serving as a virtual aquarium, with schools of fish contentedly swimming past.

Greg is Chinese American, a veteran diner (“An amateur expert”) who has led this column to a number of Asian restaurants, including the four-star Ryu Jin Ramen House (Japanese) and Lotus 8 (Chinese).

We talked about how Chinese cuisine is among the world’s most regional, as in Cantonese, Hunan, Mandarin, Mongolian and Shandong. Greg explained our upcoming Sichuan lunch: “Sichuan cooking is heavily infused with garlic and Sichuan peppers. Lamb, chicken, fish and dumplings are mainstays. There are a lot of boiled dishes, so the meats are infused in broths rather than deep-fried. My wife doesn’t like heat as much as I do, so our boys and I go to places with food that burns our mouths. That’s what we’re going to have today.”

Greg owns a State Farm Insurance agency in Sacramento. “I live in the land of risk management,” he said. How risky? I wondered. Would he insure, say, the long and interesting menu we had just looked at? “No, there’s too much liability,” he said. “I’m afraid of people passing out because of the heat.”

It’s well-known that most American Chinese restaurants serve food that’s tweaked from the original concepts in order to be compatible with the mainstream palate. “Dumbed down,” as it’s phrased. Not at Hidden Sichuan, where for the past year chef and co-owner Hanxiang Zeng has served bold dishes unlike any we’ve tasted or, in some cases, even seen. Such as braised pork knuckle in ginger sauce, and fish head with soft tofu in a hot pot.

We ordered four dishes indicative of the 200-item menu, which also offers Hunan and Mandarin items ($4 to $13.50). Forget about snow peas and water chestnuts; think of little red peppers and heavy-duty seasonings instead. To dial the heat up or down, simply tell server Cora Zhu.

First up, Human beef soup was a dark and silken broth filled with minced beef, egg, tofu, peas, cilantro and the kind of addictive heat that kept the spoonfuls coming.

“Is that too hot for you?” asked Greg.

“No, it’s just right,” I said, feeling my face go numb and recalling rocker Arthur Brown’s hit, “Fire.”

He chuckled. “My boys and I get it twice as hot at that.” Ha-ha.

The milder salt ’n’ pepper prawns in a wood crock joined napa cabbage, bell pepper, scallions and cilantro in a broth so tasty that we spooned it over steamed rice for the rest of the meal.

“Magic chile” chicken was wokked into marvelous morsels of intense flavor, served on a platter heavy with peppers (Sichuan, jalapeño and bell), scallions, peanuts and seasonings.

Matching that was Xingjiang lamb, for cumin lovers (like us) only. Medallions of tender-chewy stir-fried lamb were dusted in cumin (which has its own heat) and served with that pepper triumvirate, plus onion and more.

True, we barely delved into the varied menu, but what we tasted was complex, fresh-tasting and, perhaps most important, way beyond our normal. We went to the restaurant for the heat, yes, but there are many vegetable, pork, beef, lamb, seafood, chicken and noodle dishes that won’t test your palate to that degree.

Next time: shredded chicken in spicy soy sauce, black bean clams, spinach with garlic, and Buddha’s Delight noodle soup. Then we’ll order dinner.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Hidden Sichuan

9160 E. Stockton Blvd., Elk Grove

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays

Food:

Ambiance:

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 686-8696; www.hiddensichuan.com

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