The paper, takeout-style menu was stained with yellow fingerprints of grease. I sat at a table, gazing at the bar, whose selection of flavored vodkas and chocolate liqueurs was backlit with fluorescent mood lighting; I watched the haze of color glide lugubriously from lavender to azure to turquoise to gold. I’d been to this long, narrow room before, when it was Marigold. It felt sophisticated and private then. Now, it seemed ordinary and sleepy. If you think I care about any of these things, you have no idea how much I love Lao Sze Chuan.
For the uninitiated—if there are any left—LSC is the one that started it all, the restaurant that marked chef and restaurateur Tony Hu’s emergence, the city’s standard-bearer for Szechuanese food (in all its chili-oil and peppercorn glory) for the past 14 years. It was the first—and so far, only—restaurant that Hu, who immigrated to the United States in 1993, carbon-copied, opening satellites in Downers Grove and Connecticut. This was before the Great Tony Hu Chinatown Conquest of the Late Aughties, which brought Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao Hunan, Lao You Ju, Lao Yunnan and Lao Ma La. Not content as the ruler of Wentworth and Archer, Hu has begun expanding his reach outside the neighborhood. And so for his most recent act, he’s delighted the carryout-and-delivery denizens of the North Side with an Uptown outpost of his signature restaurant.
To eat here is to raise your body temperature, to break into a soft sweat and to know no way out of it, to seek solace in water, in green tea—for God’s sake, pass the baby bok choy. The menu is comically large, hundreds of items whose descriptions rarely exceed four words. But like a prayer service, certain observances are mandatory: There must be mapo tofu (S02), silky, light cubes of bean curd in a tingling, Szechuan pepper–charged broth. The heat doesn’t sting you; it engulfs you. There must be Tony’s Chicken with Three Chili (S10), fried bits of dark meat, sweet and salty and craveable in the same heroin-like way fast food is. You can’t do this without String Bean Spicy Black Bean Sauce (207), diced bites of green beans tossed with agreeably chewy, gently funky fermented black beans. There will be Lamb w/ Pure Cumin Powder Xin Jiang Style (722), and it will be the most tender, meltingly good cumin lamb you’ve ever encountered.
Chili-pepper icons next to certain dishes are meant to denote heat level: This is a cruel joke. There are none next to the Peking Style Rice Noodle Soup (403), a deeply pleasurable bowl of fat noodles and ground pork, that, when tossed with the chili broth beneath it, will set your brain on fire. This is how, midway through the meal, I found myself in a chili-oil daze, moving my chopsticks from plate to mouth like a zombie, alternating between the belief that my senses were muted and wildly, keenly alive.