A Bounty of Tasty Dishes at Sichuan Village

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, January 25, 2007

There is one reason to go to Sichuan Village restaurant in Chantilly: the food, whether it comes from the self-serve buffet or a la carte off the menu.

The gigantic buffet, featuring more than 100 items, is so popular at lunchtime that the crowd sometimes seems like a stampede. Most of the diners at lunch act like regulars, heading straight for locations on the buffet that hold their favorite foods. They heap their plates high before sitting down at a Spartan table in one of the three main dining rooms.

The offerings include Chinese staples -- egg rolls, hot and sour soup, pepper steak, kung pao chicken, shrimp fried rice -- and American favorites -- barbecued ribs, chicken wings and nuggets, corn and potatoes.

But even the buffet's hot and sour soup warns of more spiciness to come. Most hot and sour soups in the area have just a hint of hot pepper amongst the mushrooms, pork and tofu. The spiciness of Sichuan Village's version hits you in the back of the throat and lingers. It's not fiery, but it's definitely there.

The buffet -- available for $7.99 at lunch and $8.99 at dinner -- is the main attraction Monday through Thursday, according to owner David Qin. It lures almost equal parts office workers and construction workers, blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians.

On weekends, a la carte offerings are the most popular, Qin said. Then, the artistry of the four Chinese chefs -- all from Sichuan province -- shows through.

Sichuan Village opened in Chantilly in March 2004, a reincarnation of the Formosa Cafe Restaurant, which for 15 years was a mainstay of the Crystal City area of Arlington.

Parking, specifically the lack thereof, doomed that location. "The big groups that would come would have to go round and round, looking for parking, and sometimes, the cars would be towed," Qin said. That led him and his wife, Xiao Rong Lu, to move their restaurant to Chantilly, where parking is plentiful in the small strip mall just east of Route 28 on Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (Route 50).

The couple have owned the restaurant since 1997 -- it was opened a decade earlier by another Chinese family. Qin came to the United States in 1991 to study computers; his wife has the longtime restaurant experience.

The space itself is rather nondescript. Buffet tables take up about half of the main dining room, and a few red paper lanterns constitute the decor. A rear dining area shields guests from the hustle-bustle up front. Altogether, Sichuan Village seats about 200.

Sichuan province, famous for giant pandas and spicy foods, is in the mountainous heart of China, almost directly west of Shanghai. Chengdu is the provincial capital, and several of the specialties at Sichuan Village are from there.

Although Sichuan food is known for its spiciness, Qin said only about half of the Sichuan dishes are actually spicy.

The menu is color coded to help diners choose wisely. Golden yellow denotes hot and spicy dishes, and orange denotes really hot and spicy dishes.

If you arrive sometime other than the noontime rush -- when servers often break out in a run just to keep up with refilling the buffet tables and delivering drinks to diners -- one of the helpful personnel can provide additional information about the spiciness of a particular dish.

For the truly adventurous, there are selections such as pork maw with ginger and garlic and jellyfish with scallion sauce. But you also can find adventure in offerings that sound more mundane.

Spicy potato noodles sounds innocuous enough, but it's an orange listing on the menu, and it delivers. The clear potato noodles, made at the restaurant, are swimming in a red-tinged clear sauce, sprinkled with green onion bits, and a few leaves of Chinese greens are settled in the bottom of the bowl. It takes several minutes before the temperature of the dish allows a good taste. It's spicy, but not an overwhelmingly burn-your-mouth spicy. The starch of the noodles helps to smooth out the taste.

Steamed dumplings are lovely doughy mounds served in a bamboo steamer, but the sauce lacks real bite. Sichuan cucumbers are showered with bits of red pepper, but they taste bland.

Ant on a Tree, a dish marked golden yellow on the menu, nonetheless delivers almost as much heat as those spicy potato noodles. These clear noodles are cellophane noodles; the "ants" are bits of ground pork in a red-tinged sauce. This is a dish that enthusiasts of Sichuan cuisine consider comfort food, and several I know rave about Sichuan Village's preparation. Once you get past the heat, there are other flavors to savor.

But Chengdu kung pao chicken best illustrates the difference between Sichuan Village and every other restaurant that serves regular kung pao chicken. This is not just nuggets of tame chicken breast in a gentle sauce with bits of red pepper and roasted peanuts strewed about. At Sichuan Village, the juicier and most flavorful thigh meat serves as the basis for the dish, along with a generous helping of garlic and strips of fresh ginger and enough red pepper to make every bite a danger zone. Avoid those bits of red, and it's great.

Sichuan Village, 14005 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy. (Route 50), Chantilly, 703-631-5888. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours: noon to 10 p.m. Luncheon buffet, $7.99 weekdays, $9.99 weekends. Dinner buffet weekdays, $8.99, weekends, $10.99. Appetizers, $1.25 to $6.50. Main courses, $6.50 to $14.95. Accessible to people with disabilities.http://www.sichuanvillage.com.

If you have a favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis atlewisn@washpost.com.

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