"Hot Pepper Frog, Homestyle Made Frog, or Frog Stir-Fried with Pickle Chili?" asked my sister, flashing an oft-practiced devilish grin.
We were plotting our order from the provocative, lengthy and new menu in Fortune Chinese Restaurant. Recently implemented by the place's new owners, that voluminous food list included many intriguing looking dishes which appeared to substantiate the menu's claim of "The Best Selection of Authentic Szechuan Style Food."
As we nudgingly expressed hope that Fortune's execution of Szechuan dishes would match its self-heralded "selection," we also commented on how drastically the once-Cantonese-centric cuisine there had changed.
Too bad we couldn't say the same about Fortune's drab decor. Because although Fortune has received a much-needed house cleaning, sprucing up and coat of paint (albeit in a pale, wan yellow), it still has a dingy drop ceiling, industrial carpet, goofy 3D-type "art" and dull brown, occasionally ripped Naugahyde booths.
So how was the food? In general I found it to be salty, saucy, aggressive and oily. Since that also describes me, we got along famously. In fact, slurping up Fortune's inexpensive but explosively flavored grub was so much fun I didn't much mind that the Tsingtao beer bottle on my table was the place's best claim to ambience.
As for ordering strategies, except for the chef's specials, we took the menu's implicit suggestion and stuck with any section mentioning Szechuan in its header (there are four). While there was some sameness to the seasoning among these brazen entrees - expect generous glugs of chili oil, fresh jalapeno, garlic and ginger and an occasionally to-the-brink sweetness - I wouldn't say any two dishes were completely identical. Here's a taste:
• Fish with Rice Crust ($14) This massive (serves two or three) and mighty flavor onslaught was served with a little razzle-dazzle and is highly recommended. Thin and crispy rice cakes gave off an audible sizzle on their plate (think "snap crackle pop") when doused with an enormous bowl of impressively tender battered whitefish planks and a cornucopia of veggies (starring Chinese broccoli) swimming in a sea of wild and thick, salty, sweet and spicy sauce.
• Ma Po Bean Curd ($9) Silken tofu cubes swamped in chili oil and spiked with fermented black beans were liberally sprinkled with lip-tingling ground Szechuan peppercorns. Really fun and almost druggy in its sting and oral numbing.
• Diced Chicken Stir Fried with Pickle Turnip ($8) I enjoyed this bold, cheap and comparatively ungreasy dish so much that it's become my new go-to to-go Chinese dinner. Diced poultry coated in red chili paste was further aroused by garlic, jalapeno, and lively chunks of semi-funky and pleasantly sour veggie pickles. A hot and tangy must.
• Lamb with Chili Pepper and Cumin ($8) The delightfully tender meat was flavorful enough to stand up to its soy sauce, onion and jalapeno-fueled spicy and salty treatment. Pretty terrific.
• Hot Pepper Frog ($11) A rare sauce-free Fortune preparation, this was battered and fried bundles of froggy tossed with leafy celery tops, jalapeno, scallion and a volatile arsenal of firecracker-like fried red chili peppers. I liked it, but there were a lot of tiny, hidden bones in those battered bites.
• Mixed Vegetable Stir Fry ($8) Like a pleasantly bitter sauteed salad of slivered carrots and green veggies dressed in soy sauce and cooking oil, this functions well as a palate-refreshing side to the rich, spicy and more complex flavors of many dishes here.