When Zhong Li's father first tried General Tso's chicken, the 86-year-old was intrigued but a little puzzled. "He tasted it and said, 'It's very delicious. What kind of food is it?' " Li explained that it's an American creation that has become a staple of Chinese eateries here in the states. The restaurateur includes a version of the saucy favorite on his menus, but cuisine of his native Sichuan is star of the show.
Li is the founder of Sichuan Gourmet, a family of restaurants that recently opened a fifth location in Burlington (it's in a shopping plaza where Mr. Chan's used to be). Shamin Summer manages the front of house and executive chef Chengdong Lei (who also oversees Billerica and Brookline) is in the kitchen. A different chef is responsible for the Framingham and Sharon locations.
The team had been hunting for a Burlington location for a while, prompted in part by a vocal contingent of residents requesting it. Summer, who worked at the Billerica branch before helping open the newest outpost, says it's a familiar conversation. "I'm always being told by customers, 'You need more locations,' " she says. Inevitably, they want one in their own town. It's easy to see why.
Xiang La fish ($16.50) showcases the kitchen at its best. Sole, usually such a bland fish, takes on a vivid identity here. Fillets are battered and deep-fried to achieve delectable crunch, then combined with stir-fried chiles, scallions, and Sichuan peppercorns. The name of the dish, which translates as "fragrant and spicy," is a spot-on description, melding kicky heat with the perfumed, floral tingle of the special peppercorns. The effect is slightly numbing to the tongue.
Chiles and peppercorns also assert themselves in two served-cool dishes. A platter of beef tendon with "spicy wonder" sauce ($8.50) features flavors of both seasonings in a vermillion-hued oil that dresses the delicacy. Because the translucent connective tissue is long-simmered, chilled, and sliced paper-thin, it's tender rather than chewy. Another cold dish, roast beef and tendon with chile sauce ($9.50), adds crushed peanuts to the sliced meats, plus a shake of made-in-house five-spice powder. Slender wisps of Chinese chives adorn both dishes.
Dumpling and noodle enthusiasts won't be left wanting here. Chengdu spicy dumplings ($6.95), pork-filled half-moons, arrive doused with chile oil and a scattering of sesame seeds. The juicy filling tucked inside the thick wrappers is gingery and a little sweet. A zippy dish of dan dan noodles ($6.25) heaps ground pork, peanuts, and scallions on skinny wheat noodles. Mix the chile oil-slicked meat thoroughly into the pasta for best effect.
It's hard not to love Sichuan double-cooked bacon ($12.50), uncured pork belly that is first simmered, then tossed in a hot wok with yellow peppers, leeks, and the chile-peppercorn duo. It's an indulgent, satisfying dish, meant to be eaten with plenty of hot white rice.
A platter of baby bok choy ($10.50), stir-fried with plenty of minced garlic, is crisp and expertly cooked. Sichuan-style string beans ($10.50) are soft and pliable, as if braised. General Tso's chicken ($12.95) — battered-and-fried nuggets of sweetly sauced dark meat — is a sentimental favorite. It's no wonder that the dish populates menus from coast to coast, even if few would recognize it in China.
Just two months old, the Burlington location is bustling every time we visit. Having just opened, Li and his team have no plans in the works for another eatery, but seem open to suggestions. Residents from a particular western suburb, says Summer in a confidential tone, are clamoring for a sixth location in their town.
Swing by and make a case for your neck of the woods. Pick up the fragrant-spicy fish while you're at it.
91 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington, 781-221-7288, www.laosichuan.com
Visa and Mastercard accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers and soup $2.25-$10.95. Noodles and rice $6.25-$13.50. Meat and seafood $11.50-$21.95 (most entrees under $18).
Hours Mon-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri, Sat 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sun 12 noon to 9:30 p.m.
Liquor Wine and beer
What to order Xiang La fish, beef tendon in "spicy wonder" sauce, roast beef and tendon with chile sauce, Chengdu dumplings, dan dan noodles, double-cooked pork.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.