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Review Thu Feb 20 2014
Authentic Szechuan cuisine is masochistic -- it makes you sweat, makes you cry, makes you beg for sweet, sweet mercy (possibly even a couple bowel movements later). You leave the experience contemplating the fragility of mankind, yet you find yourself both mentally and physiologically stronger. If you order cashew shrimp or spring rolls at a Szechuan place, shame on you. If you order a dish not swimming in freshly chopped garlic, cilantro, Chinese celery, and numbing peppercorns, may the gods above have mercy on your feeble soul.
Chicago's classic Szechuan joint is Lao Sze Chuan, but Chengdu Impression in Lincoln Park cooks wonderfully authentic food, if you know what to order. (Plus, I trust Mike Sula on Asian-food related matters.) To preface, my family is from the Szechuan province, meaning my grandfather still makes his own chili condiments by frying up green peppers in his 50-year-old wok.
As a natural capsaicin lover, I went straight for the authentic dishes I grew up eating: the Fu Qi Fei Pian (beef shank, heart, tongue, and stomach mix in hot sauce), the heart-breaking rice jelly (rice jelly strips topped with chopped garlic and fresh chili sauce), QingChen Grilled Fish (fried fish in spicy broth), tiger skin pepper (Chinese pepper with black vinegar), and potato strips (stir fried potatoes with chilis). My meek-spirited friend ordered standard American fare -- pork fried rice, pork pot stickers, sesame beef, and Shanghai spring rolls.
All my dishes were spicy, pungent, sweet, sour -- in short, spectacular. Yelpers often complain about the oiliness, the saltiness, the bony meat pieces -- but see, that's like going to Pizzeria Trianon Da Ciro and throwing a hissy fit because your pizza ain't Chicago deep dish. Chinese people often treat meats and vegetables as "condiments" that are scooped onto rice. For Szechuan cuisine in particular, white rice serves to soak up all the spicy and greasy bits from your chopsticks, and cooking meat on the bone keeps the protein savory and juicy. Cold water cleanses the palate, and servers provide you with plenty of napkins to soak up extra oil and/or tears of painful joy.
My favorite dish of the night was the heart-breaking rice jelly, slippery slabs generously topped with garlic and crunchy chili peppers. It's a nostalgic dish my mother used to make with mung bean powder, black vinegar, garlic, and Lao Gan Ma Chili sauce (which is a hundred times hotter than Siracha).
Though they've been open for only four months, Chengdu Impression plans to expand their menu, adding hot-pot to their already gargantuan menu. I admit, Szechuan cuisine is not for the fainthearted, but if you like authentic Chinese cuisine without the trek to Chinatown, it's worth the burn.
2545 N. Halsted St.