The spiciest dish I tried at Panda Gourmet was not even Sichuan. It was the cumin-beef burger, a steer-based variation of the more common pork sandwich known as rou jia mo in Shaanxi (or “rouga mo” in Panda Gourmet). Slices of the spice-rubbed beef were tucked into a house-made bun — a saltless creation that’s part pita, part cracker — with enough pieces of hot, heart-pounding pepper to bring the dead back to life. (By contrast, the rou jia mo was more savory than superheated, as if a sloppy Joe had morphed into something far more complex and delicious.)
Even without the spectacular ma la fireworks, Panda Gourmet repeatedly ignited my palate. The slender flounder fillets that floated in my volcano/bowl of semi-hot chili sauce were just as silken as the tofu that bobbed in the same container, their delicate textures playing off the garnish of chewy soybeans.
For sheer delicacy, though, nothing topped the hand-pulled Shaanxi biang biang noodles, these wide downy ribbons dusted liberally with toasted spices and scallions; they were so ethereal they were more like a suggestion of noodles, as if their form was defined as much by the dry spices they ferried. Compare the biang biang noodles to the Shaanxi cold-steamed noodles, a dish that revels in its layering of textures — spongy tofu, velvety strands and crunchy mung-bean sprouts.
The mother of all noodles, however, goes by the name of Dan Dan. My dish of the stuff was almost too pretty to eat: ivory-white strands curled on a plate and topped with crumbled pork and scallion ringlets, the whole lounging in a liquid approximately the color of red-wine sauce. The noodles provided all the resistance of overripe bananas, while simultaneously releasing their starchiness, which combined with the chili oil to perform a kind of Chinese massage of the mouth. I am not joking.
In some ways, Panda Gourmet’s modest approach to spice allows you to revel in the complexity of Sichuan and Shaanxi cooking, nuances that could easily get lost in the radiation burn of peppers. You might discover, for instance, that the melt-in-your-mouth flounder in the Sichuan “fiery pot” deserves just as much attention as the chili oil that tries to drown it.