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Groundhog Day

February 2, 2018

Once upon a time, Groundhog Day used to be about a furry little rodent coming out of its hole in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania to predict the end of winter. Then this happened…

Now more than anything else, Groundhog Day makes me think of Bill Murray and reliving the same experience over and over again. So instead of making the drive to Punxsutawney to drink hot cocoa and dance to the Pennsylvania Polka, I’ve got another plan.

I’m going to eat Szechuan food with some of my favorite local Yelpers.

For years, the hot and fiery foods of Szechuan cuisine were missing from the Capital Region dining scene. Back in California, there were two remarkably good places for the food of southwest China. One was in San Francisco near my office, and the other was just outside of Berkeley in the city of Albany.

Yep, there’s an Albany in California too.

Like every place else, each restaurant had dishes they made better than others. One had a dynamite cold diced rabbit in chili oil, the other made an incredible spicy seafood soup with hand pulled noodles.

Lanny at Ala Shanghai once told me if there were any particular Szechuan dishes I particularly craved, if I called ahead he would be more than happy to have his chefs prepare them. And at some points in my life up here, that was tempting.

But part of me really appreciates specialization. I love that Ala Shanghai has a focus on a regional cuisine.

The drought of Szechuan cuisine in the Capital Region is over.

There have always been spots where you can find a regional dish or two on the menu. But now we have at least two that are worthy of note. Northeast Chinese Restaurant and Shu Chinese Restaurant.

Soon, I’m heading back to Northeast Chinese to get some more of the cabbage and pork belly with numbing peppers. Man, that was delicious. And I somehow missed out on the chili pepper shrimp at the last go around there, a mistake I’m looking forward to fixing today.

At Shu the Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which is a delightful combination of cold tongue and tripe in chili oil is so much better than it sounds, it’s not even funny. And the cold mouthwatering chicken (which is the actual name of the dish) uses some magical kind of pepper that makes these cold, bone-in bites of chicken positively addictive. I crave it like I shouldn’t crave anything, and it makes me forget all about that cold diced rabbit from California.

So how is this a Goundhog Day post?

Well, despite how much I love Szechuan food, the intensity of the spice and all volume of the oil involved, don’t really agree with me. Which means I get to live through the experience of the meal, and then I get to relive the experience of the meal. The second time isn’t nearly as pleasant.

Still, I come back. Because I love this food. I crave this food. And I’m thrilled we have options. That said, for me, this is a once a month indulgence at the most. Which is why it helps to go with friends, so I can try more dishes at a sitting.

Some people really don’t enjoy numbing pepper, and I get that. But not every Szechuan dish has those. I love the wide range of sensations the peppers can bring. Well, at least I enjoy them going down.

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