At Joy Luck Buffet, bypass the buffet and focus on joy and luck

Click here for a complete slideshow from The Joy Luck Buffet.
Click here for a complete slideshow from The Joy Luck Buffet.

Have you ever eaten a Szechuan peppercorn? If you need to think before answering the question, then you almost certainly haven't. Eating a Szechuan peppercorn — which is not an actual peppercorn but the dried husk of a tiny fruit — is as singular an experience as having sex or driving in St. Louis after a snowstorm. There are no analogies. Yes, you might describe the aroma as floral and the flavor as lemony, but that is beside the point. It is the sensation that overwhelms you, a numbing tingle that spreads gradually but unavoidably across your lips and tongue. This effect is bracing enough by itself, but when you use Szechuan peppercorns as a seasoning, they elevate already pungent and fiery dishes to a point of exquisite intensity.

If you haven't eaten a Szechuan peppercorn, then you likely haven't eaten traditional Szechuan cuisine, either. That isn't your fault. The real thing is hard to find. Even those who have driven past Joy Luck Buffet a thousand times or more might not know that this restaurant at the busy intersection of Manchester and Hanley roads is a shrine to the Szechuan peppercorn and the cuisine for which it is so essential.

The interior betrays few signs of this. It looks like — and, in fact, is — a standard-issue Chinese buffet, right down to the pans of quivering Jell-O squares. When you ask to see the menu — "the authentic menu," the staff calls it — the reaction (assuming, of course, that you aren't of Chinese heritage) is first surprise and then delight.

Inevitably an employee will ask where you got wind of this menu. If you are a regular at the buffet, you might have noticed the diners perusing the laminated menu while snacking on a complimentary dish of cold seaweed slicked with chile oil, or perhaps you sat next to a large family that was taking turns dunking meat and vegetables into the bubbling broth of a hot pot. In my case it was good old word of mouth: After I lamented the insipid dishes at a new pan-Asian restaurant last month, a couple of readers suggested a visit to Joy Luck.

For the Szechuan peppercorn novice, the dried-fried chicken is as good a place to start as any. You can spot the husks easily enough among the pieces of chicken and bell pepper and, if you are the timid type, approach them at your own pace. The dish's heat you must confront head-on. Chile flakes speckle the plate and sear the mouth. (This and other spicy dishes are marked on the menu with a chile pepper icon; ignore it at your peril.) The chicken has been hacked into small pieces, most of them still on the bone. A lightly crisp exterior yields to tender meat, the flavor a savory backbeat to the chile's heat and — you can avoid it only so long — the peppercorns' buzz.

It is more fun, of course, to dive right into the sensation that the Chinese call ma la, "hot and numbing." In my case that meant a bowl of the Chengdu spicy beef, named for the capital of Szechuan province. Though it isn't listed as such on the menu, this is a soup, thinly sliced beef in a broth of the deep, deep red hue usually associated with a child's drawing of a fire truck. The broth packs the expected one-two punch of chiles and peppercorns; the flavor is rounded out by the beef and accented with a subtle sour note.

Not every dish here is seasoned with peppercorns. Not every dish is spicy, either, though these are in the minority. There is the beer-braised beef, for instance, very tender slices of beef braised with assorted vegetables in a broth that has the lightly hoppy flavor of a standard-issue lager. More typical is the cumin lamb. Though not marked with a chile pepper icon on the menu, it has a definite (though not, to the average palate, overwhelming) heat. This gives an extra kick to the already pungent pairing of thinly sliced lamb and cumin, the distinctive funk of each working together beautifully.

All my talk of Szechuan peppercorns notwithstanding, the cumin lamb, though not the most complex dish at Joy Luck, might be the most eye opening. Its spice profile is closer to Indian cuisine than what we in the west think of as "Chinese food." At the very least, it shows how meaningless the term "Szechuan" is when used on most Chinese menus here in the States.

Those with a taste for the unusual will not be disappointed. You can order beef tripe and pork kidneys, jellyfish and intestines. An order of pork ears in chile oil, an appetizer, brings a disarmingly large pile of cartilaginous crescents, each somehow simultaneously tender and chewy, the flavor more chile than pig. Pork knuckle generally isn't considered a nasty bit, but it rarely rates much attention. This is a shame. It might be the most delicious of the pork dishes here, with the deep porcine flavor associated with such long-cooked dishes as carnitas or barbecued pork shoulder.

Whatever you choose, you must include an order of hot-and-sour noodles: a small bowl of cellophane noodles in a fiery red broth similar to the Chengdu spicy beef, though with a much stronger sour component. A scattering of chopped scallions gives the dish an extra brightness, and a handful of very small roasted nuts adds crunch and a depth of flavor. At the very least, the soup will clear your sinuses of winter's clutter. Or like me you might find that, like Vietnamese pho, it has the power, inexplicable but undeniable, to salve the soul.

Regardless, the hot-and-sour noodles will put you in such a good mood that you might want to share some with a buffet diner at a neighboring table. If he doesn't like them, slip a Szechuan peppercorn or two onto his plate of crab Rangoon. If nothing else, they'll shut him up for a few minutes.