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.
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).
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.
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.
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.