Tony's Three Chili Chicken at Lao Sze Chuan ($11.45)
The dish that started it all. If you ever encounter someone who claims not to like Chinese food, take them to Lao Sze Chuan, order this dish, and watch the transformation. It will take all of about three seconds. Affectionately known as "crack chicken" for its truly addictive powers, the real secret behind this dish the combination of Sichuan peppercorns and chiles—a duo which numbs the tongue while also setting it on fire. A faint sweetness helps temper some of the more aggressive spice, making this the perfect introduction to the wide world of Tony Hu.
String Beans with Spicy Black Bean Sauce at Lao Sze Chuan ($5.45)
Meat may get the headlines at most of his restaurants, but Hu is just as adept at cooking vegetables. Take the String Beans in Spicy Black Bean Sauce, which features ½-inch hunks of beans, jalapenos, and fermented black beans. This hits on so many different flavors and textures, it's almost embarrassing to list them, but here are a few that jump out immediately: crunchy, salty, funky, spicy, sweet, and oddly meaty (though I don't believe any animal part comes close to it). The only frustrating part of the dish for me is figuring out an effective way to clasp onto the tiny bits with my chopsticks. Luckily, persistence pays off.
Ground Pork with Sour Pickle at Lao Hunan ($9.95)
Lao Hunan's dishes can be just as ferociously spicy as those at Lao Sze Chuan, but if any one dish showcases the key difference between the two regional cuisines, it's this dish—a spicy and sour concoction that, as some have pointed out, has some odd similarities with giardiniera thanks to the pickled vegetables. That's a close approximation, but it doesn't quite do this dish justice. Though I love spicy giardiniera, it's more of a condiment than a meal, while this dish needs nothing else. Meaty and filling, there is also an unmistakable funk that never gets old.
Tai Gan Hunan Style at Lao Hunan ($5.45)
There is some confusion about what exactly the pickled vegetable is here. The Tribune thinks it is a green bean, while Gary Wiviott on LTHForum suggested that it could be Meigan cai. I'm not sure. I do know that this cold appetizer of crunchy pickled vegetables is sour and spicy in a really dramatic way.
Dry Chili Fish Fillet at Lao Hunan ($14.95)
Ed Levine talks often about the "cosmic oneness" of perfectly fried chicken—that rare occurrence when breading and skin become one. What does that have to do with the fish at Lao Hunan? Well, though the large fillets are obviously coated in something, there is absolutely no separation between the crunchy, spicy exterior and the succulent white interior. I don't know how they do it.
Due to the presence of Sichuan peppercorns and chiles, this is probably technically a Sichuanese dish, but I've only encountered it at Lao Hunan. (It could be hidden Lao Sze Chuan's epic menu, but I haven't found anything quite like it yet.) It also hits on same numbing-hot sweet spot that makes Tony's Three Chili Chicken so addictive. But it's so much more than just a repeat of the same dish with a different protein.
Shredded Tofu with Vegetable at Lao Shanghai ($5.50)
After a week of eating powerfully flavored dishes, this dainty little appetizer was an absolute shock. Cool and delicately flavored, it felt restorative and clean—a description I never would have thought to use for a dish from a Tony Hu restaurant.
Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) at Lao Shanghai (8 for $5.95)
The critical consensus on the xiao long bao from Lao Shanghai seems to be that they are heavy and don't contain enough liquid. But that's not what I encountered. The order I had featured a thin exterior layer and a generous portion of liquid, which required me to delicately eat these over my plate so that I wouldn't stain my shirt. Perhaps the soup dumplings have steadily improved since Lao Shanghai's opening over four years ago, because on the night I visited, these were a hit.
Shanghai Style Fish Fillet at Lao Shanghai ($11.95)
If you're unsure whether you like Shanghainese cuisine, this is probably the dish that will make it or break it for you. Instead of aggressive seasoning and intense heat, Shanghai is most known for its restraint. But if you're not ready for it, the creamy slices of fish suspended in a lightly flavored and viscous sauce could be little confusing. If you get past that, you're left with a beautifully flavored dish that's surprisingly comforting.
Tony's Special Pot Stickers Lao Beijing ($5.95)
These skinny little cigars are unlike any pot stickers I've encountered before. The thin and crispy layers of dough kind of resemble phyllo, but aren't nearly as heavy as you'd imagine. Instead, each crackly bite gives way to a seasoned ground pork mixture. Though good on their own, some chili oil and vinegar sauce is not a bad idea.
Pancake Northern Style at Lao Beijing ($4.95)
Lao Beijing has a way with bread. While the southern regions of China, like Sichuan and Hunan, use loads of rice, the northern city of Beijing places a greater emphasis on what can be done with wheat. Take the Pancake Northern Style. With a crackly croissant-like exterior, this is the ideal food to scoop up fragments of other dishes.
Spicy Peanuts at Lao You Ju (Free)
Though it feels a little strange to include what amounts to bar peanuts on this list, I've never quite had bar peanuts like this before. Spicy, sweet, crunchy—these could be packaged up and sold across the country.
Happy Green Bean Jelly at Lao You Ju ($5)
First off, the green bean jelly is made from mung bean starch. And second, I'm not sure why this is an especially happy dish. All I do know is that the slender little slices were cool and refreshing, while the sauce was spicy and numbing. Basically, if you're looking for the same sensation that you get from Lao Sze Chuan but want it in a sleeker environment, this is an ideal start.
Three Kingdom Steamed Egg ($9)
Three small cups, all layered with a silky coating of egg at the bottom, and yet each one tasted completely different thanks to what sat on top. The one on the right featured a viscous liquid, which, when combined with the egg, made for an elegant sort of egg drop soup. In the middle, a spicy Sichuan meat mixture brought to mind mapo doufu. Finally, a custardy concoction completed the tasting.
Spicy Cabbage Sze Chuan Style at Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Hunan, and Lao Beijing (Free)
How could I leave this one off? By the end of my tour, I started to wonder why every meal I ate didn't start with a little bowl of wickedly hot sliced cabbage. It's hard to call it a palate cleanser, especially since it sets your mouth on fire, but it's difficult to deny its addictive powers. Of the three places that dished it out for free, the edge may have to go to Lao Sze Chuan, but they were all pretty much equally great.