The masterpiece of the dinner, April's favorite dish at DeDe's, bears the misleading title of "boiled sliced fish in hot sauce" (#14), which sounds like some awful New England mess of cod drenched in Tabasco. It's nothing like that. Dunlop doesn't include a recipe for this exact dish but offers a similar one with beef that's adaptable for fish, eels, organ meats, etc.: "Szechuanese people joke that outsiders, wary of the fiery local flavors, order this dish in restaurants, in the hope of eating something mild and soothing," she writes. "In fact it's sensationally hot." The fish isn't dumped into boiling water but "velveted" first in a marinade of rice wine and cornstarch, and whatever happens next (insta-boiled in water or simmered in sauce?), it emerges on the perfect border of softness and firmness, along with the accompanying large crisp-tender leaves of a cabbagelike Chinese green, aswirl in a thin bright-orange colloid that's simultaneously incendiary and irresistible. It's one of those complex, hot combinations that doesn't obscure but highlights the underlying, supporting flavors (garlic, ginger, wine, etc.). Every bite tastes a little different from the last. When retasting the leftovers at home, I found myself vocally reenacting Meg Ryan's famous "deli scene" — but this time the moans were actually about the food.
Inland Szechuan's fish are purely freshwater species from the Yangtze and other mountain rivers. I don't know or care what species DeDe's used, the dish was great. If you prefer, you can get the same preparation with pork chitlins, with pork kidneys and beef, or with chicken and pork.
When we ordered another of April's favorites, spicy hot pot with pork blood, tendon, etc. (#13), our friendly middle-aged waitress finally gave me a doubtful look — this was obviously carrying things to the very edge. I murmured, "You've heard of the Filipino dish dinaguan, pork blood stew? I eat that, too." Meanwhile, April was probably reassuring her in Mandarin. Between us, we communicated that there was no cause for alarm (except maybe the fire alarm). The hot pot looked like a soup — a blazing, oil-coated, red-orange soup. "Don't drink a lot of the broth," April said. "Just spoon the solids over your rice." The pork blood came in a very few little squares, solid, but soft and savory. The primary meat was white, soft, fluffy, lacy — was it tripe? Didn't taste funky! It was delicate, and the sauce was wicked hot. The mixture had a brilliant array of textures and flavors (including tender slices of pork liver) — but it was also one of the spiciest dishes I've ever tasted the whole world over, five chilies on a scale of three. (If I had to do it all over again, after devouring Dunlop's book, I'd probably order the Chungking hot pot [#2] — another three-chili dish — not because it's better, but because it's the emblematic regional dish, and I've never eaten it.)
One of the favorites of Chowhound bloggers, and rightly so, is Ma Po Tofu (#93), bean curd cubes in another spicy sauce. The favored style of bean curd in Szechuan is marked on packages (even here) as "silken," meaning, extra-soft, in contrast to the firm tofu used for deep-fried and stuffed tofu dishes in southern China and Japan. "The tofu tastes almost buttery," said Sam. It did, too. With a texture of velvet and cream under the taste of hot chilies, the mixture attains a fine balance. This dish typically includes ground pork, which I didn't taste here and didn't miss much, although I'd have valued it as another texture.
Yes, a lot of spice. Thing about hot pepper is, once you plunge into it enough that your mouth accepts it as a base-state flavor, then your palate has all the room in the world to discover the refinement and delicacy than can coexist with the capsicum in dishes that are done right. As I discovered in a year of fire-eating, cowriting my first cookbook (Totally Hot, Doubleday, out of print), it becomes almost a new comfort zone. It's like a much nicer version of an all-day motorcycle trip in a rainstorm. Once your leathers, your sweater, your thermals, your socks, and your flesh become totally soaked, you just forget there was ever such a state as dry, and you accept your lot as a water creature in an eternally cold, wet world (ribbit). Hot peppers do the same for your mouth, but more alluringly — first a bit of pain, then a lot of pleasure. Physiologists studying their effects say they slightly raise your heart rate, pulse rate, adrenaline secretions, and endorphins (pleasure hormones). Like a motorcycle ride in perfect weather, or some high-thrills drug, capsaicin (the active chemical component that produces these reactions) is a little addictive. But unlike chemical uppers, the stuff's actually good for you — loads of vitamin A and C and even natural antibiotics in those peppers.
Among the less-spicy choices, DeDe's most popular dish with the bloggers (slightly outpolling a reputedly good, crispy version of sweet-and-sour pork) is lamb with cumin (#81). I asked April if this were a Szechuanese dish. She'd never heard of it. According to Dunlop, there are small Chinese Moslem (Uighur) communities in Szechuan, and they substitute lamb for pork — but she doesn't include any recipes for it. Not all that impressed with the cumin lamb (which Ba Ren also offers), but suspecting it might be a case of hot-pepper palatosis, I retried gently reheated leftover lamb at home before eating anything spicy. It still didn't impress me much — slightly tough meat strips, a hint of seasoning, a tangle of pea shoots, no big deal.
We also tried twice-cooked pork (#67), a Szechuan classic made of streaky fat-and-lean belly pork (uncooked bacon) and veggies. Nice, and with only a "one chili" rating, actually soothing. Not quite as riveting as the version I tried at a Hong Kong Szechuan restaurant but, unlike that rendition, grease-free.
A special that evening, evident on about half the surrounding tables, was tea-smoked duck, another Szechuanese invention. It was pleasant (good skin, a bit dry in the flesh), but there are more interesting-sounding poultry dishes on the menu — chicken with dried orange peel, and particularly, a duck hot pot with yam cake (#89), another famous regional specialty.