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Szechuan Heaven: Szechuan Gourmet is One of Cleveland's Most Exciting Restaurants Right Now 

I've been eating at Szechuan Gourmet every other month or so for a year and I still feel like a stranger in a foreign land every single visit. The Chinese restaurant, which opened last year in a space connected to Tink Holl grocery, replaced a short-lived Asian restaurant in the same space. Szechuan Gourmet, unlike its predecessor, appears to have earned an enthusiastic following.

It's not simply that the restaurant specializes in a cuisine I'm still fumbling in the dark to fully comprehend. It's that the menu is long as hell, maddeningly obtuse and lacking anything resembling a description. Unlike the popular Wonton Gourmet, whose walls are papered with a full-color pictorial version of its menu, Szechuan Gourmet's manual leads with Chinese characters and follows with a terse English translation. What's more, items like soup can be found not only under the two separate "Soup" categories, but also in the "Dessert Entrée" section as well. Go figure.

The good news is that none of that matters one bit: A diner here could order by throwing darts at the menu and still build the Szechuan feast of his or her dreams.

I'll never forget the first time I ate here and experienced that tongue-tingling sensation that accompanies true Szechuan cooking. It comes from real Sichuan peppercorns that are the hallmark of the cuisine. Unrelated to regular-old peppercorns, these produce a buzzing feeling on the tongue while triggering salivation, which in turn increases one's perception of taste. An accompanying numbing quality allows a diner to endure what otherwise might be a brutal blast of heat from chiles. A years-long ban on the peppercorns by the USDA prevented many (by-the-books) Asian restaurants from cooking with the real thing until eight years ago.

We don't often think of hot and spicy dishes as comfort food, but that's precisely what ma po tofu ($7.95) is to fans of this Szechuan classic. The first thing that strikes you about the dish, which arrives in a wide casserole, is its color. Set against the white dish, the fiery red contents look positively toxic to tongues. But more memorable than that steady drumbeat of heat is the complex marriage of silken tofu and finely ground, sautéed pork.

One night, a friend ordered a seemingly dull starter of cold cucumbers with chile and vinegar ($4.95). It turned out to be anything but dull. The dish has it all: cold and crunchy, hot and spicy, tart and refreshing. The hotter your mouth gets from the chiles, the more you crave another piece of chilly cuke. Talk about a vicious cycle.

Order any of the "dried pot" dishes — a non-soupy version of the popular "hot pot" dishes – and you'll take delivery of an entire stainless steel wok filled to the rim with your choice of beef, lamb, chicken, rabbit, pork intestine or fish ($14.95) mixed with all matter of sprouts, veggies and herbs. It is a kaleidoscope of color, texture and flavor — and it's wickedly, addictively spicy.

Not every dish melts plastic: The "loofah with matrimony vine" ($9.95) is a mellow, nuanced arrangement of tender but crunchy young loofah gourd with black mushrooms in a light, clear sauce. The salt and pepper crispy prawns ($15.95) —sold in or out of the shell despite the fact that they are battered and fried — are meaty, salty, crunchy and delicious. The have a mild heat from the occasional bit of pepper, but it's the shrimp flavor that stands out the most.

For an incredibly savory dish, try the twice-cooked pork ($9.95), which includes meaty pieces of pork belly that are first braised then stir-fried and tossed with an umami-rich black bean sauce. Another satisfyingly savory dish is the shredded pork with dried bean curd ($11.95). Long bands of tender lean pork are mixed with ribbons of slightly chewy bean curd and crisp green onions in a mildly sweet sauce.

Also on the menu are appropriately chewy scallion pancakes ($2.95), beefy noodle soups with marrow-filled bones ($7.95), garlicky sautéed greens ($7.95) and what I'm told is one of the best versions of crispy fried pork intestines in the tri-state area. Oh, and about 1,000 other dishes starring seafood, beef, pork, duck, chicken, lamb, frog, rabbit and exotic vegetables.

I'm usually not one to champion the logic that says one can judge the quality of a Chinese eatery by the number of Asians in the dining room. But I can say that for my money, Szechuan Gourmet is one of the most exciting restaurants in Cleveland right now. Yes, it's a bit challenging to muddle through the pages-long menu of complex foreign dishes with little help from staffers, but hey, that's part of the adventure. And there's cold beer and karaoke, so...

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