The young Chinese hipsters who slowly filled the dining room that night all ordered one thing: the House Special Grilled Fish in Pan. My companion and I tried to order that, too. But our server had other ideas.
“It’s too much!” she said. “It’s too big!” We also had ordered the House Special Hot Pot with Skewers, and both the hot pot and the grilled fish would never fit on our table, our server said. Plus, it would be too much food. Plus, they were very similar dishes.
“I spoke to my manager,” our server continued. “We think you should get the House Special Boiled Fish instead.”
We didn’t argue. Well, actually, my companion pushed back a little—she and I were so relieved to be in a Tony Hu restaurant with a menu fewer than ten pages long (Lao Ma La’s is merely two pages, and half of the second page—a section called “American’s Favorites”—safely can be ignored) that I think we were eager to claim victory in ordering with confidence. But our server persisted—“you can come back for the grilled fish later”—and, eventually, she won.
So a few minutes later there was a broth filled with dried chilies bubbling on our table. We had ordered the spicy broth, because at Lao Ma La, which has a chili in its logo, spicy Szechuanese food is the point, and we had come seeking big flavors that would make us sweat. We dipped skewers of chicken into the broth, let them cook a little too long, and marveled at how delicious and tender the meat was despite the fact that it appeared to be overcooked and dry. But there was a slight problem: It wasn’t that spicy.
The Special Boiled Fish seemed as if it would fix that problem. The fish was buried in a broth so packed with dried chilies and Szechuan peppercorns you could not see it. After digging some out, we marveled again at how flaky and perfect the fish was, the way it gently fell apart. And this time the lemony, tongue-numbing effects of the peppercorns were unmistakably present.
We tried a few of the other smaller items we had ordered. The hand-torn pancake was a mess of dough, some of it browned and crispy, some of it light and doughy, all of it deeply satisfying. Then, two skewers of bacon dusted heavily with chili powder, which were sweet and fatty and spicy—the kind of punch we had been looking for.
I put some shrimp into the hot pot. Useless. The flavor of the broth remained on the shell, which we peeled off and set on our plates. I dunked some needle mushrooms and some fried tofu skin. Better. These soaked up the broth like rice, and the broth, which had been bubbling more than 20 minutes now, was getting spicier.
Still, when the intense aroma of garlic coming from the kitchen hit us, we sensed it was not just the Grilled Fish in Pan we were missing out on. So we asked about it. “Pork hands,” our server told us. We placed an order.
The hands (otherwise known as feet) were mostly gelatinous fat—not really an American Favorite. But whenever I got to a tender bite of meat under the fat, slicked with salt and garlic, I was thankful that, with this dish at least, our server hadn’t put up a fight.