Maneuver through the gridlock in front of the Burlington Mall, stop-and-go past Chili’s and the Border Cafe, and find a parking space somewhere near Aveda. Open the door and you’re in another world — Sichuan Gourmet — a happy place with round tables filled with families slurping dumplings and cheerful folks crowding a takeout counter, toting enormous brown paper bags of goodies back to their cars.
I live in Arlington, and I brave rush-hour traffic even on a weeknight to grab takeout here. My go-to order: Cheng Du spicy dumplings, Sichuan wontons with spicy chile sauce, and green bean jelly with Cheng Du spicy sauce.
Yes, there’s stuff that even your spice-fearing, picky child will recognize, too, and it’s exceptional. Crab Rangoon, at its worst leaden and porous, is light and crackly here. There’s a balanced, fluffy ratio of crab to cream cheese, more whipped cream than Elmer’s glue. Kung Bao chicken is unencumbered by gloppy, sugary sauce, and — miracle of miracles — there are more peanuts than celery. I don’t even mind feeding my 7-year-old a chicken finger or three: These golden missiles are filled with actual chicken, and they don’t leak grease.
But let’s talk about the Sichuan food.
Owner Zhong Li is from Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province; so is manager Shamin Summer. Li arrived in the United States in 1991 and studied biochemistry.
“When I started school, I got a part-time job in a restaurant. And I got this idea: I really wanted to introduce real Sichuan food to the Boston area. It’s very delicious. Why can’t this food be here?” he says.
In 2002, he opened the first Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica. Now he maintains a mini-empire, with branches in Framingham, Brookline, Sharon, and most recently, here in Burlington almost two years ago. His signature dishes (noted on a “Sichuan Delicacies” portion of the menu) are an electric mix of chiles, bean paste, and garlic, savory red oil pooling at the bottom of every bowl, best sopped up with boiled white rice.
“Chile oil is so important for Sichuan cooking,” Li says.
Pork wontons are silky smooth, bobbling in a puddle of “special soy sauce,” says Li, a house five-spice blend, chile oil, and garlic. They hold just a whisper of sweetness. For a spicier experience, get the chewier, thicker Cheng Du dumplings, also pork. This version has sesame paste, adding a fuller, savory layer. Guaranteed you’ll tilt back the bowl to drink every last bit of that sauce.
Green bean jelly is tastier than it sounds; it’s actually a noodle salad. The noodles are made from green bean powder, set in boiling water, forming a tender jelly cut into ribbons. Then they’re slicked with a combination of chile oil, black bean sauce, chile bean sauce, soy sauce, garlic, peppercorn powder, and black vinegar — numbing little bolts of succulent anesthesia. Finally, it’s showered with peanuts, balancing the slippery noodles with a satisfying crackle.
Service is cheerful and patient. Last time I arrived with my older son to grab takeout, he flexed his little biceps in the window while we waited, innocently self-confident. The hostess noticed and grinned. She flexed her biceps right back at him.
91 Middlesex Turnpike,