A request for the "other" menu at a Chinese restaurant is always the right move even when it's met with a suspicious stare. At Dragon 1 Chinese Restaurant out west on Flagler Street, a tattooed waitress with streaks of purple hair responds by delivering a tattered middle-school book-report binder with the word "yummy" scrawled in colored pencil on the cover.
Inside is a sprawling list of Sichuan dishes ranging from approachable plates of cold noodles tossed in chilies and sesame oil to intensely oily loins of ribbonfish braised in soy sauce. The latter is an acquired taste but easy to enjoy if you've ever pined for a plate of anchovies or sardines.
Working the wok here is chef and owner Alan Zhang. The 48-year-old Tianjin native was a cargo ship engineer who shuttled between his hometown's massive port and other hubs in Southeast Asia before giving up life at sea. At age 25, he began taking odd jobs in restaurants to make good on a lifelong passion.
He dutifully shadowed Tianjin's Sichuan chefs and favored the western region's intensely spicy fare over the Beijing-style cuisine that permeates Tianjin. He moved to South Florida about 15 years ago, toiling in Asian restaurants in Broward and Miami-Dade. His formidable training came alongside a lifelong friend from Beijing, Shin Du, who moved to Miami to work at Mr. Chow at the W South Beach. "He taught me how to make real Chinese food," Zhang says.
He opened this humble 38-seater about two years ago. The location may seem obscure, but it's not far from Florida International University. It's since become a haven for Chinese students from FIU and the University of Miami. And as local interest in traditional Asian cuisine has blossomed, so has Zhang's business.
It's important not to be fooled by the crumpled menu or the mismatched lavender and green banquettes. The mess of notebooks, crumbs, and takeout boxes piled behind the register should be only a distraction. Zhang is cooking some of Miami's most intense, flavorful Chinese food.
The proof is deceivingly simple. One bowl is filled with long, thick rectangular noodles made from soybean and tapioca starch. It has the texture of dense panna cotta. The Sichuan jelly is served cold after a toss in a fiery red concoction that Zhang makes by steeping peanut oil in chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, walnuts, and star anise for hours. More of the citrusy, numbing peppercorns, chopped garlic, and scallions finish each bite with a jarring snap.
Simple pleasures also come in skewered and grilled forms. Pleasantly fatty hunks of lamb shoulder are showered with cumin, salt, and pepper and then crisped over a charcoal grill. Supple chicken hearts are even better and as tender as the bird's revered oyster, a buttery bite that hides on its back near the thighs. Chewy wheat noodles are tossed in black bean sauce with slivers of pork shoulder; roasted shreds of jalapeño peppers add a punch that makes a bowl of these noodles welcome on any table.
The best option, however, is the plate of pickled string beans that Zhang prepares in a mostly rice vinegar brew. When they emerge, they maintain a bit of their crunch while taking on a waxy, almost jerky-like texture. A toss in a wok with minced beef intestine, garlic, and chilies adds a savory, slick layer of fat.
Despite shunning Beijing-style fare, Zhang offers a handful of duck dishes he says are popular in the capital. For one version, he marinates a chopped bird in Tsingtao beer for two days before braising it and then adding bay leaves, star anise, chilies, and scallions. Still, it's the beer that best complements the bird. The yeasty flavor is a perfect foil for the rich meat, skin, and fat. There's also a canoe-size dish of braised beef piled high with as many dried chilies as thin slices of meat. It begins with a steamed pile of napa cabbage that's transferred to the bowl with a bit of its cooking liquid. The chilies are fried in Zhang's fire-engine-red oil with a handful of peppercorns, sesame seeds, and finally the thin slabs of fatty meat. Together they create an intensely spicy sauce with just a bit of fragrance thanks to the ad hoc vegetable stock.
It's one of many dishes that heat the back of your throat after the first bite. The burn creeps forward, toward your lips, and then up your face. At some point, beads of sweat begin gathering on your forehead. You lean back, take a swig of Tsingtao, and wonder how these dishes can set your face on fire without losing their flavor. The only way to know the answer is to return and do it all over again.
Dragon 1 Chinese Restaurant
10162 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-221-9741. Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Lamb skewers $2
Sichuan jelly $7.95
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Beer-braised duck $21.95
Pickled green beans with mincemeat $12.95
Pork and green pepper noodles $6.50
Braised beef in spicy oil $13.95