We’ve picked the fish clean. Its spinal column yawns in a thin arc across the platter; my friend’s fork probes the vertebrae, checking for tiny, lingering morsels of meat. Most of the skin is long gone. The head has been pulled apart and searched for cheek meat — there isn’t much on tilapia, but what’s there is gently sweet — and we have ganged up to take care of the rich seam of flesh along the collar. The eyeballs still stare back.
Another friend tells us that the smaller fins are edible and pops one into his mouth; it crunches like a potato chip. Alas, the one I choose turns out to be too spiny for eating.
There’s something about devouring a whole fish — truly devouring it, leaving nothing but bones — that feels victorious, like climbing a mountain peak or getting through downtown on Interstate 35 without hitting traffic. That’s especially the case at Plano’s Little Sichuan, where the whole tilapia ($25) comes buried in an avalanche of potatoes, cauliflower, lotus root, hot peppers and numbing peppercorns. It’s a spectacular centerpiece that requires group effort. Underneath all those vegetables, the tilapia is cooked perfectly fork-tender and served with the escalating heat of chili oil, which enters into partnership with the fish’s natural sweetness.
Whole fish is a must, but otherwise ordering at Little Sichuan can be intimidating. There are three menus. First and easiest is the standard menu, divided neatly into appetizers, noodles, beef, pork and other expected categories. In here, Americanized Chinese dishes like General Tso’s chicken mingle with Sichuan staples like tea-smoked duck, beef and Napa cabbage in spicy chili sauce, ma po tofu and konjac with pickled cabbage.
Then there’s a binder-sized bonus menu of house specialties. This one is an inch thick because just two items are listed on each page, alongside large photographs of each dish. For English speakers, the photos are the best way to differentiate between two distinct dishes named “fish fillet and bean sprout with spicy chili sauce.” (We tried and enjoyed the one, $13, with red rather than green chiles.) Many of these specialties are still rare in Dallas; think intestines stir-fried with serrano peppers that still retain their fiery seeds.
Finally, Little Sichuan lists its specials, in Chinese characters only, on a whiteboard behind the counter. Bring a Chinese friend or ask one of the personable, helpful waiters what’s on offer. There will usually be one special for each type of meat, a market-price whole fish and seasonal veggies. One current offering: a marvelous mound of water spinach sautéed with a whole lot of garlic, in a portion generous enough to share ($10).
On the main menu, the appetizer salad of bamboo shoots in roasted chili vinaigrette is a definite favorite ($7). It couldn’t be much simpler — tender, thinly sliced bamboo shoots, dressed and peppered. But the soft texture and the combination of cool salad and gently spicy dressing is irresistible. There’s a similar dish with long cucumber slices into which a note of sweetness intrudes ($5).
Main courses tend to be enormous; with rice, each can be up to three normal-sized meals. The best way to experience Little Sichuan is to bring four to six friends, take advantage of the BYOB policy, order a round of appetizers and then share a comparatively modest number of the banquet-sized mains. Of course, another good way to dine here is to spend the rest of the week living off the leftovers.
Sichuan peppercorns — with their uniquely tingly, numbing sensation that isn’t quite spicy but isn’t much like anything else, either — appear in most of the main courses. But they don’t predominate or overwhelm, and even in the more overtly hot specialties, Little Sichuan isn’t trying to out-spice anyone. The food here is well balanced and well seasoned, a rebuke to restaurants that rely on sheer firepower to leave diners wiping sweat off their foreheads and tears off their cheeks. Sichuan cooking has gotten a bad reputation for that sort of food, but that notoriety usually isn’t justified by culinary tradition. It’s often a gimmick.
So when a hot platter arrives with fish fillets in a bright red chili sauce, topped with both red Asian chili peppers and slices of green serrano, the food isn’t going to be a one-dimensional spice-off. What impresses most, maybe, is how tender and well cooked the fish is. That’s true of all the meats. Beef spiced with cumin ($13) is, again, remarkably tender and pliable, and that unmistakable cumin aroma hits the table before the plate does. The spice lingers in our mouths, too, after our plate has been cleaned.
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A stir-fry of beef, oyster mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and both sweet and hot peppers, ordered from the binder of specialties, comes with a surprise: fries ($17). Yes, a waiter confirmed, those are good old potatoes, although instead of being deep-fried into the all-American side dish, they’ve been mixed up with the rest of the stir fry. The fries hold their shape rather than tearing into potato fragments. The beef, cloaked in one of Little Sichuan’s spicier chili sauces, is beautifully tender.
There are a couple of dumpling dishes, but they’re not really a house specialty. Chengdu dumplings ($6), filled with ground pork, have good flavor and come drizzled with chili oil and sesame seeds. One on visit, the pork inside was scrumptious, but on another the pork came out firm and stiff in texture. Wontons ($6) are served in a lovely chili sauce, gently spicy and sour, but again, the filling, oddly firm, takes some attention away from the delicate wrappers and seasonings. The best dough-based dish here is the dan dan noodle bowl ($6), a nutty, savory, slurpable take on a classic and a reprieve for those who’ve eaten too many hot peppers.
This corner of Plano is becoming a mecca of new Asian food destinations, including a Mitsuwa Marketplace one strip mall away. Little Sichuan, which has been here for more than a decade, survives as a reminder that restaurants don’t need to be new or trendy to be exciting. But it helps that its whole fish is good to the last scrap.
Little Sichuan Cuisine, 240 Legacy Drive, Plano. 972-517-1374. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.