Panda Country Kitchen turns on the heat

Loaded with hot red chiles, chile oil, garlic and fragrant — if mouth numbing — prickly ash berries or “peppercorns,” Sichuan cooking may not be for the faint of heart. But those who like the heat and are excited by a pantry that embraces pickled greens, leeks, fresh bacon, smoked duck and freshwater fish should consider Panda Country Kitchen. This two-year-old restaurant does a good job on some of the most typical Sichuan preparations.

The agriculturally rich, subtropical Sichuan province is located in southwestern China in a Yangtze River basin surrounded by mountains. Some 80 percent of the world’s pandas live in protected bamboo forests in nearby mountain sanctuaries — hence the name of this restaurant.

Most of the region’s characteristic dishes are listed on a single page of house specials. I start at the top with phoenix pork kidney flower (No. 3, $8.99). I know. I know. But if you were ever going to try kidneys, start here. They’re pristine, sweet and tender, sliced and scored so that they do look like blossoms. With pea leaves, slender bamboo shoots, sliced pickled garlic and creamy gingko nuts, they star in a perfectly executed dish that isn’t hot.

Sauteed smoked pork (No. 24, $9.99) is a classic, prepared by every restaurant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. At Panda, the sweetly cured bacon, cut into elegant ribbons, is lightened by bright green leeks to form a beautifully balanced dish.

Everyone will love tea-smoked duck (No. 18, $8.99), which is like the best Peking duck but with deliciously salty, super-crisp skin.

Sated with rich meats, your tongue can handle a little spice, so turn to fish fillet with tofu in spicy sauce (No. 26, $9.99), crisply fried pieces of fresh fish and tofu in red chile sauce with raw peanuts and fermented black beans, exciting in texture and flavor. Use a wedge of green onion pancake ($2.99), thin, fried layers of dough full of scallions, to scoop it up.

Chunky cucumber salad ($3.99) in garlic and rice wine vinegar cools and refreshes the mouth.

For some serious heat, look to vermicelli with minced pork (No. 35, $7.99), thin glass noodles in a meat sauce seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, red chile and vinegar. Also incendiary and one of my favorite dishes here, spicy noodle with ground pork sauce (No. 83, $5.99) brings thick, white noodles bathed in a vinegary, red chile and Sichuan pepper spiked broth with ground pork and sprigs of baby spinach.

Frog sauteed with fresh home made pepper (No. 11, $9.99) weaves a tapestry of flavors both hot and mild, threaded with red chiles, slender strips of Chinese celery and bamboo shoots.

For dessert, order sweet yum cake with red bean paste (No. 28,$5.99), crisp fritters filled with sweet red bean paste. Find them in the dim sum section of the menu.

The immaculate if simple storefront dining room is embellished with real wood wainscoting, floral carpeting, comfortable chairs with carved backs, cloth-covered round tables and watercolor prints of pandas on the walls.

One busy weekend night our young waitress in a pony tail and a hoodie with “cute A-list girl” written in sequins on her back was just that. She knew the menu and gave good advice. But the food is best during the slower week nights when the kitchen has more time to cook the exotic dishes of Sichuan, one by one.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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