If you go to Sichuan Folk in Plano -- and I strongly suggest you do -- you will face a choice. It's essentially two different restaurants. Turn to the left in the bright, peach-walled dining room, and you'll be having hot pot, an all-you- can-eat, cook-it-yourself extravaganza. Turn right, and you're in an a la carte Sichuan restaurant -- and what a carte. The wide-ranging menu features some 200-plus offerings arranged in intriguing categories like "Preserved Chili Dish," "Special Sautéed Dish," "Cayenne Pepper, Chopped Pepper Dish" and "Boiled in Hot Sauce." And that's not counting the category of "American Chinese Cuisine," where sweet-and-sour chicken and orange beef are quarantined.
Let's head right to start. Even after multiple visits you'll hardly scratch the surface of what's here. You might begin with the spicy cold noodles, this version made with unusually thin egg noodles slicked with hot oil. They arrive at the table topped by bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, sliced green onion and a startlingly large mound of minced raw garlic, all of which your server mixes together. It's a spicy powerhouse of a dish that will keep the vampires away not only from you but also from your progeny for generations.
Other great cold appetizer choices include the happy marriage beef, thin-sliced meat mixed with slightly chewy beef tendon in a spicy brown sauce with cilantro; and, if you're feeling adventurous, crunchy sliced pigs' ears in chile oil (it's all about the texture) or the lacy hot-and-sour beef tripe. Chung's dumplings, pork dumplings in hot oil, are somewhat less successful: The filling's bland and the wrappers tend to disintegrate.
Unusually for a Chinese restaurant that gets relatively few Western customers, your waiter may offer to bring the appetizers first instead of serving everything more or less at once -- though, truth be told, there's still not that much of a gap. The servers are strikingly friendly and helpful, especially if you get the charming Jennifer Ke, who rules the roost on the a la carte side of the house; she'll know you by your second visit and greet you like an old friend.
Most dishes here are not blow-your- head-off hot, and the cooks also have a light hand with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. It's punchy and powerful food, sure, but with an unusual clarity and cleanliness of flavor. Take the lamb in cumin sauce, something you can find in flabby, gummy renditions all over town. Sichuan Folk's version will remind you of why this once-unusual dish has become so popular: The slightly crisp, thin slices of meat are tender and distinct, warmed with toasted cumin and brightened with chopped cilantro stems.
Even the ominously named sliced beef in fiery sauce isn't as lethal as it sounds; it's a generous stew in a meaty, thick broth spiked with doubanjiang, the signature Sichuan seasoning paste of chile and fermented fava beans, and accompanied by crisp-tender napa cabbage and leeks. While the dry-fried chicken -- hunks of bone-in bird deep-fried and dressed with strips of red and green pepper and green onion -- is studded with dried chiles and bathed in red oil, the crunchy, savory meat isn't overpowered by heat. And one of the best dishes is scarcely spicy at all: the preserved pork, essentially a deeply smoky, delightfully chewy bacon stir-fried with leeks and studded with little umami bombs of fermented black beans. There's also an unusual and delicate dish called fried shrimp with salted egg yolk, the shrimp lightly battered and showered with flecks of hard-cooked egg.
Next visit, turn left for Hot-Pot Land (though you may cast a longing glance at the Side With Hundreds of Fascinating Dishes). At the center of your table is a glass-topped induction burner where your hot pot will bubble and seethe. The pot comes out with a sort of appetizer called a "dry pot," really a quite saucy, spicy stew of your choice of thin-sliced beef ribs, shrimp, chicken wings, or, um, pork intestines or frog. Once you've worked your way through that, the pot gets filled with broth. Go for the pot with the wall down the middle; a red, chile-spiced broth goes on one side, a mild pork broth on the other.
You check off the goodies you want on a long list: meats such as thin-shaved beef and lamb, their pink flesh and snow-white fat making them look exactly like slices of prosciutto; seafood such as shrimp and baby octopus; and various kinds of noodles, mushrooms and vegetables. You plop them into the roiling broth for a few moments, then fish them out. Each ingredient adds a little of its own flavor to the liquid, which in turn perfumes the next addition, and having a choice of mild or hot soups makes for variety. It's great, tasty fun, and you get three rounds of ordering from the list, making it impossible not to stuff yourself silly.
Left or right, it's hard to go wrong at Sichuan Folk. I just wish the choice weren't so tough.
Sichuan Folk (3 stars)
Price: $$ (appetizers and soups $1.50 to $10.95; entrees $6.95 to $25.95; lunch specials $5.95 to $6.95; hot pot $20.99 per person)
Service: Servers are particularly welcoming and friendly. They'll guide you through the complexities of the hot pot system, though there may be a bit of a language barrier.
Ambience: The dining room is bright and modern, with well-spaced, comfortable tables. The walls are painted in muted tones of peach and gray; a television in one corner always seems to be tuned to Chinese historical documentaries.
Noise level: Low, though things can get a little louder when the hot-pot side is packed.
Location: Sichuan Folk, 1201 E. Parker Road (at K Avenue), Plano; 972-516-8627
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: No alcohol; BYOB, no corkage fee
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50