On a stretch of road famous for fine international cuisine, Famous Szechuan Pavilion is a hidden gem

Xin Lin, owner of Famous Szechuan Pavilion, sitting down for a moment to enjoy a Hot Pot lunch.  See a complete gallery of Jennifer Silverberg photographs of Famous Szechuan Pavilion here.
Xin Lin, owner of Famous Szechuan Pavilion, sitting down for a moment to enjoy a Hot Pot lunch. See a complete gallery of Jennifer Silverberg photographs of Famous Szechuan Pavilion here. Jennifer Silverberg

On a stretch of road famous for fine international cuisine, Famous Szechuan Pavilion is a hidden gem

8615 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-685-0888.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (Closed Mon.)

Here's what I know about the owner and chef of Famous Szechuan Pavilion. Her name is Xin Lin. She's from the Szechuan province of China. There, she tells me, she was No. 1 in her class. I believe she means culinary school, but here again our mutual language barrier is as tall and forbidding as that wall of ice in Game of Thrones.

I know that when she first opened her restaurant last year — in the unlikeliest of locations, an abandoned drive-through snow-cone hut on Manchester Road in Brentwood — she was often the sole employee. If you took your meal there, at one of the very few seats inside the hut, you were essentially eating in her kitchen, and she served you as your food was ready. If you took your food to go, as soon as you opened up the Styrofoam container in you car or at your office desk or at home and took a bite, you experienced a moment of delicious disorientation: Something this good and this far removed from your everyday culinary worldview came from an abandoned drive-through snow-cone hut in Brentwood?

I know that while she has left the hut behind — it's now a drive-through sushi joint — her food remains a revelation.

In March of this year, Xin moved Famous Szechuan Pavilion to Jeffrey Plaza, the strip mall just east of Interstate 170 on Olive Boulevard that has made a name for itself as a Hole-in-the-Wall Hall of Fame: the IHOP-turned-sushi-palace Nobu's; the pho joint Pho Long and the Jamaican spot De Palm Tree among the ongoing operations. (In the Jeffrey Plaza circle of life, Famous Szechuan Pavilion moved into the storefront that had been an Ethiopian restaurant and market.)

The new space is much larger than the original Pavilion, but that's not saying much, is it? (A walk-in closet would be larger than the original Pavilion). It's spare in its own fashion, however, with seating for 50 spread throughout a dimly lighted, drably decorated room. Several oscillating fans stand in for an air conditioner, so the room can be stuffy and spare. But Xin has her own kitchen now, equipped with more than a hot plate and rice cooker. She even has a cook to assist her, as well as someone to tend to the front of house and, when the orders pile up, help prepare the food.

In the U.S., the food of Xin's Szechuan province is best known for its ferocious chile heat and its liberal use of the Szechuan peppercorn, which possesses a unique flavor (sort of citrusy, sort of floral; sort of reminiscent of gin) and imparts a unique sensation: a tingling numbness that spreads across your tongue and the roof of your mouth. (Botanically speaking it's not a peppercorn, or, for that matter, a chile, at all.)

You will experience both of the abovementioned characteristics here, though not always and not necessarily in the same dish. "Spicy Wonton Soup" betrays its heat in the vivid orange-red of its broth, in which bob plump little wontons stuffed with ground pork. The Szechuan peppercorns lurk at the bottom of your bowl; stir them up, and the soup suddenly explodes with their more complex flavor. A dish of stir-fried chicken gizzards followed this same dynamic, though the heat was even more intense, the peppercorns more numerous. The gizzards, utzed with a hint of sesame oil, gave the dish a welcome dose of earthy depth.

For a shot of straight-up capsaicin, I suggest yu shan pork: slivers of meat and chopped scallions and red chiles in chile oil, the savory blend of pig and garlic quickly giving way to a heat so powerful that I stopped at McDonald's on the drive home for a cone of soft-serve vanilla ice cream to try to kill the pain.

You don't have to destroy your palate to enjoy Famous Szechuan Pavilion, mind you. When you place your order, your server will likely ask, "Spicy?" and even if you say yes, these dishes are so complex that the heat is merely one element. The dan dan noodles bring thin, flat ribbons tossed with ground pork or chicken, and scallions that add richness and brightness, respectively, to the clinging chile oil. Ma po tofu is slabs of silken bean curd and (vegetarians: beware) ground pork in a broth that appears as fearsome as that spicy wonton soup, but fermented bean paste, a key ingredient, takes it to another, funkier place altogether.

On my final visit, a couple of friends and I were blown away by a simple dish that we took to calling "Szechuan hash browns": potato shredded and then boiled and tossed with dried chiles. (It's the "Seasonal Special" on the menu.) We also ordered "Lao-style" eggs, because none of us knew what these were. They turned out to be two poached eggs served in their cooking liquid, with sugar added for a pleasant, eggy sweetness.

For our final dish, the three of us (abetted by a fellow customer who acted as translator) asked Xin to pick a dish for us. She pointed at (we thought) "Cold Spicy Chicken Chips." I'm not sure this is what we actually received. The dish wasn't cold, you see, though it wasn't hot, either. Call it pleasantly above room temperature. At any rate, it did contain chicken: hunks of it roughly chopped, much of it still with bone or cartilage attached, along with scallions, peanuts, cabbage and Szechuan peppercorns in a light red-chile sauce. It looked a little bit like kung pao (or kong bao, as it's transliterated on the menu here) chicken.

In the end, it hardly mattered. At Famous Szechuan Pavilion, it's not about the words, or the surroundings; it's about the food.

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