Unlike previous visits to CTX, we were not the only white people this time. Thats most likely because it was Christmas eve, the night when New York Jews indulge in Chinese food. Not terribly different than the monthly routine for many. The tradition started decades ago when places like CTX didnt exist much here. At least not as far as I know. Back then your main options were Cantonese American/Chinese palaces with big round tables spinning egg foo youngs and pepper steak, before the General Tso’s and chicken with broccolis took over. We still eat the latter stuff on occasion, though I secretly reheat them sometimes with chili oils and crisps to get some sort of resemblance to the flavors of a CTX.
Chuan Tian Xia is not only fun to say, but a lot of fun to experience. Its not your typical Chrismukkah Chinese establishment, but a fiery, numbing feast for all senses, especially the Jewish ones. Its located in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, home to arguably the most authentic and largest Chinatown in the US. CTX, along with Hot Space, another Sunset Park fave, stand out in a sea of Chinese establishments, perhaps since most Sunset Park immigrants came from Fujian which is known for milder fair. Even the dishes we experienced so far at Hot Space and CTX werent as fiery as Queens staples like Szechuan Mountain House and Legend of Taste.
Our last visit to CTX was more successful than prior. Maybe because this time I finally used the Szechuan magic word, “Medium”. Spice levels werent quite up to snuff before, but were more like it this time. We can handle more, but sometimes there’s that fine line between handle and joy. Mrs Z didnt even have one of her infamous coughing episodes. Usually at the beginning of a spicy BYOB (Bring your own Bounty) fest (eg Ugly Baby), she starts the meal with a prolonged cough attack where we both sort of expect it and ride it out while the staff looks in horror. After its over, its business as usual as she handles the heat like a champ.
I also love reviews that wildly rave about the spice levels, and at the same breath talk about how they couldnt finish the dish due to said spice levels. If its too spicy to eat, its too spicy to enjoy, even if you normally enjoy spicy food. I recently crossed that line at Rowdy Rooster in East Village where I opted for the next level on my fried chicken. What was wrong with the lower level I enjoyed previously? Absolutely nothing.
As soon as you sit down at CTX, delicious tea and dangerously addictive spicy peanuts arrive. Often its the little details that make a difference. The smart decor of murals of what looks like Lucha Libre masks is akin to something you find in Manhattan, not Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Service is usually friendly, efficient, and English is never an issue. In Sunset Park, particularly in the Dim Sum palaces, its often point and speak.
Cold appetizers, including cold Chengdu mung bean noodles are more popular here than hot appetizers like the Sichuan staple Dan Dan Noodles. Although there was nothing particularly wrong with the Dan Dan last time. The griddled simple veggies here are usually a must get for us. Over time we settled for the cauliflower and string beans. No matter how much I try to replicate them at home, it doesnt come close to these flavors. The string beans, unlike at other Sichuan places dont come topped with pork but quite flavor packed nonetheless. Its not on the menu but it should be.
One of my favorite Sichuan dishes is dry fried fish fillets, and the CTX version (“hot and spicy fish fillet” on the menu) didnt disappoint. The only miss last time was the Chongqing chicken, a classic I usually enjoy. The chicken was a bit overly diced, and so too small to balance the strong flavors, though the pineapple fried rice helped. The Kung Pao chicken was more like it, and a fitting dish for the occasion. Its like a nice bridge between American and Sichuan… sweet, sour, and just spicy enough to remind us where we are. Happy New Year!
Chuan Tian Xia
5502 7th Ave, Brooklyn
Recommended Dishes: Pineapple fried rice String Beans, Cauliflower, Hot and spicy fish fillet, Kung Pao chicken