The Dan-Dan Diaspora
If you’ve noticed a surge of late in Sichuan food, you can thank (or blame, depending on your spice tolerance) Wu Liang Ye. Despite the business’s recent retrenchment, with shuttered branches in Yorkville and Murray Hill, it’s impossible to overstate the role the onetime powerhouse has played in the recent boom. John Zhang, the Grand Sichuan pooh-bah, got his start at Wu before launching his own mini-empire. And this year, front-and-back-of-the-house fugitives from the WLY organization have dispersed throughout the borough, materializing in spiffy new establishments like the wood-beamed Wa Jeal (1588 Second Ave., nr. 82nd St.; 212-396-3339), where the friendly young manager, a Wu alum, sagely guides newcomers to signatures like half a tea-smoked duck hacked into crisp-skinned, meaty hunks ($15.95), and Chef’s Ma Paul Diced Fish & Crispy Tofu, with crispy but tender cubes of flounder and bean curd afloat in a glistening chile-oil lake ($15.95).
There have also been unconfirmed reports of Wu folks spotted ten blocks south, at Szechuan Chalet (1395 Second Ave., nr. 73rd St.; 212-737-1838), where hand-scrawled thank-you notes from the local populace attest to the Sichuan–via–New Jersey chef’s prowess with regional specialties like Cheng Du chilled noodles with spicy sesame vinaigrette ($4.95) and double-cooked fresh bacon with spicy capsicum ($13.95), long strips of savory pork belly mingled with green peppers and leeks. In the increasingly Sichuan-saturated Thirties, the onetime Wu Liang Ye outpost has become Mapo Tofu (338 Lexington Ave., nr. 39th St.; 212-867-8118), but many of its former employees have wound up at Lan Sheng a few blocks west (60 W. 39th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-575-8899), where the kitchen has entered into cutthroat culinary competition with the veteran Szechuan Gourmet up the street, deploying weapons like dan dan noodles ($5.50) and chile-pepper-bombed Chongqing chicken ($12.95).
Despite evidence to the contrary, there’s more on the Sino-food front than Sichuan peppercorns and mapo tofu. There are, for instance, the unfamiliar Shangdong and Dongbei specialties that have been infiltrating Flushing, at places like the year-old M&T (44-09 Kissena Blvd., nr. Cherry Ave.; 718-539-4100), and the supremely comforting bo zai fan—or, as the 301-item menu modestly refers to it, World Famous Rice in Casserole, topped with everything from squab to eel ($8.95)—at A Wah, the Cantonese Chowhound favorite just south of the Manhattan Bridge (5 Catherine St., nr. Division St.; 212-925-8308).