Szechuan Mountain House – Manhattan

Szechuan Mountain House
Szechuan Mountain House
Neighborhood: East Village
Cuisine: Chinese

It’s been a minute since I’ve hung out on St. Mark’s. But I was happy to see the punks still gather on the stoops to gab about cigarettes and hair glue. Or whatever punks talk about. Granted, the neighborhood has certainly leaned into its Asian flavor even more than the last time I took a stroll down its insular-feeling facades. For instance, Szechuan Mountain House is now a thing, way up there on the second floor. In a building that used to house Andy Warhol’s Electric Circus nightclub. The neighborhood has always been funky, I guess. But a different kind of funky.

It’s hard to imagine all those artsy people looking upon this joint from their perch in the 1960s. The building, chopped and readied for retail, is now home to a semi-upscale Chinese joint with an iPad hostess. Well, an iPad that takes the walk-in-only reservations and texts you when your table is ready. While you wait out on the curb, trying not to die at the hands of the berserker scooter delivery dudes, who seem to think the sidewalk is also their domain. Even on a Thursday night at 6:00, this joint is hoppin’. A table for two took us upwards of 40 minutes to land a spot. Popular place, this.

Once seated, you can kind of see why. Its faux Chinese-village-in-a-bamboo-forest vibe is very pleasing, if not antithetical to the crowded bustle that the restaurant actually is. I mean, this is not the place to come if you were thinking of a quiet, intimate date. The tables are packed in, the noise level is just below jet engine and the servers are like deft running backs, avoiding incoming patrons, bus boys and each other. It’s honestly best you don’t watch if you’re a nervous person. The menu is not your typical American Chinese. Frankly, I don’t know much about the difference between the different types of Chinese cuisine, despite growing up eating some sort of Chinese food on at least a bi-weekly basis. I can say pretty definitively that despite there being things like tripe, frog and “chicken paws” on the menu, I wasn’t going to be overly ambitious, experimental or adventurous on this night. And that’s on me.

What happens in really loud restaurants with low-talking servers and my old-ass, damaged ears is that I just defer to whomever I’m with to order for the table. Which, with Chinese, is generally fine. I just say “I don’t do pork” and leave it at that. Trouble is, their signature dish is something called swing pork belly. Which looks to be raw bacon-like strips of pork hanging over a mini sawhorse. Luckily it also comes with cucumber strips, which ain’t my eating mate’s bag. I feel bad; he could have ordered this for himself and just given me the cucumbers. But he must really hate cucumbers. Instead we got the house chicken appetizer. Which was cold chicken chunks, with cold chicken skin in an oily chili sauce with a minimal amount of peanuts on top. I was… less than enthused with the choice. Because, again, I didn’t realize it was going to be cold. Not room temp. Cold. So, cold chicken, slick oil and no deboning lead to not only tough sledding in terms of trying not to die on a bone shard, but also what I found to be a relatively unpleasant textural experience. That’s just me, though.

For our entrees, we ordered something called la-zi chicken and ma-ma hot fish. And, boy, we should have asked for the white-boy version, cuz this shit is haute. Hawt? Even the beers and the uncouth order of white rice could barely quell the sting of a shovel full of red chilis and a fish broth full of hot peppercorns. It’s called “hot” fish, dummy! Just like the cold chicken, I was thinking temperature and not Scoville heat units. Anyhow, the la-zi chicken arrived in a serving dish that resembled the head of a small spade. And, honestly, you couldn’t pick out the chicken from the absolute pile of beautiful red chilis. It looked really cool. And while the eating experience seemed more like a game than a culinary experience, I did enjoy challenging my pallet with the constant burning sensation and apparent thing Szechuan eating does of risking life and limb on chicken bone shards. Yes, the tiny little fried nuggets of chicken were mixed in there with the chilis, and some were more like little fried bits of bone gristle and marrow than actual meat. It was… odd. But also fun? Unlike the hottest hot wings, these chilis kind of kicked your mouth’s ass, but backed off relatively quickly. Like I didn’t walk out at the end of the night and straight for the closest ER. The fish was more to my liking. Floating in some sort of chili-based, almost buttery broth that made the white fish chunks tender and rich. But, again, I would get a stray peppercorn and break out into a sweat. So that one was both fun and delectable.

Sometimes restaurants aren’t all about eating the best food you’ve ever had. Sometimes it’s about the atmosphere, the experience and the company. The service, I must say, was incredibly quick and responsive. The servers were very nice and clearly engaged with the food. Had I been able to hear them over the din (and through their masks), I probably would have praised them even more for directing us away from the “blood curd” (whatever that is). The crowd also seemed to be having a great time. And just about everyone looked to be enjoying the actual experience of eating. I’d say the clientele was about 90% Asian (if not higher), which puts me in the mind that we’re in the right place for this type of grub. And that, on some level, this is authentic to the cuisine. It would be as if I walked into a Jewish deli and saw a bunch of dudes who look like my great uncles hanging out in there. I’d know their pumpernickel and matzo ball soup was the real deal. Anyway, perhaps I go back and try another round here with an open mind and less pickiness about how my chickens are cleaned. Or perhaps I ease my way back in with some local Szechuan. Whatever the case, I see why Szechuan Mountain House is popular and would suggest anyone going to gird your loins for the hot stuff.

23 St Marks Pl. (bet. 2nd & 3rd Ave.)