The Szechuan Seventies
In the early 1970s Szechuan food took New York by storm, along with other Chinese regional cuisines like Hunan and Mandarin. Some very upscale places opened in midtown, trumpeting the arrival of authentic Chinese cuisine, and more humble ones began to spring up in Chinatown. The food was revelatory to a populace that had only known highly Americanized Cantonese fare. It was not long before Szechuan cuisine became the basis for a newly dominant bastardized Chinese-American cuisine.
This flowering of authentic Szechuan cuisine was actually fairly brief, even if many of the dishes became standard menu items at every neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Among the best of the early Chinatown Szechuan places were Szechuan Taste and Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn, both on East Broadway. At these restaurants we were introduced to dishes like hot and sour soup, double cooked pork, kung pao chicken and ma po tofu (though usually called bean curd Szechuan-style). The best of the bunch, which opened a bit later, and was even more authentic, was Ting Fu Garden, on Pell Street. Among their specialties were freshly baked, sesame-coated flat breads stuffed with aromatic beef or pig’s ear, cold diced tripe in chili sauce, steamed spare ribs with a spicy rice flour coating, and an amazing spicy lamb dish whose name I can’t remember. One dish that I never ordered, but which caught everyone’s attention when they read the menu, was “boiled tripe and things.” The menu also included congee, but it was given the ascetic moniker “plain gruel.” Perhaps they were planning a Chinese production of “Oliver!” I believe Ting Fu closed in the mid-80s, and by that time most of the Chinatown Szechuan restaurants were gone. Ironically, Szechuan-influenced dishes dominated the menus of every bad Chinese restaurant by that time, yet there was a period from the mid-80s to the mid-90s when you couldn’t find any real Szechuan cuisine in New York.
A few places serving authentic Hunan food also opened in the ‘70s, but they too eventually disappeared. Szechuan and Hunan are distinct cuisines, but because they are both heavily reliant on hot-spicy dishes, the provinces are used interchangeably in the names of Chinese-American restaurants.
Also debuting in the seventies were Mandarin restaurants, though I think the term was used loosely, and they did not necessarily specialize in Peking court cuisine. The Mandarin places tended to serve a mix of Northern, Shanghai and Szechuan dishes. Among the Chinatown choices were Mandarin House and Peking Tung Lai Shun (named for a famous Beijing Muslim restaurant, Donglaishun, which specializes in mutton hot pot).
Shanghai cuisine, which is now one of the greatest culinary strengths of New York’s Chinatown was not ubiquitous in those days. There were a few standouts, however, the best one being Little Shanghai, on East Broadway, which had a long run. It was one of Calvin Trillin’s favorite restaurants. Also on East Broadway for a brief time was Petite Soochow, which served Suzhou cuisine, a close relative of Shanghai-style.
Chinatown’s Szechuan period was a brief one, less than fifteen years. Every one of the restaurants I’ve named is gone now, and except for a branch of Grand Sichuan International there is no Szechuan food to be found in Chinatown (though thankfully there are a number of excellent places in midtown and Queens). By the 1980s Chinatown had changed, and I changed with it.