On the advice of two friends, I wandered one day into Spicy Village, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a restaurant that politeness prevents me from describing as anything other than “modest.” I stopped by a couple of years ago to have the not-at-all-bad $2 pork sandwich, a pile of sloppy-Joe-ish pork served on light, crisp bread baked by the proprietors — Wendy Lian and her husband, Ren Fu Li — but I rarely thought of it again.
This time, however, I ordered, as I’d been instructed by my friends, the No. 7, the Spicy Big Tray Chicken. It arrived on an aluminum tray (you eat it on a foam plate with a plastic fork or chopsticks), a mound of chicken nearly afloat in a bath of dark, spicy sauce that contained star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, chile, garlic, cilantro, a few mystery ingredients and…potatoes. This was like no other “Chinese” dish I’d had before.
That I ate this chicken four times in the following weeks — sometimes alone, sometimes with friends — is a testament to just how good it is. But I also wanted to make my face known to the owners so I could eventually ask to cook it with them. Although those of you who live in or visit New York should eat this in situ, the rest of you should whip it up at home.
It’s an odd concoction, as I saw when Lian, and her brother, Zeng Xin, who is the restaurant’s cook, took me into the kitchen. The chicken — legs cut into pieces with a cleaver (yes, you’ll wind up eating some bone fragments) — is marinated in Budweiser, salt, pepper and MSG. Over a huge flame in a large wok partly filled with oil, Zeng fried the chicken, stirring it almost constantly. He then drained it, waited a minute and fried it again.
At this point the chicken was quite browned and even done by some standards. But Zeng stir-fried it with a mixture of dried spices, spicy bean paste, Fujianese wine, garlic and ginger. Enormous amounts of black pepper were thrown in at nearly every stage. At some point half-cooked potatoes were added, and the whole thing was cooked until they were done and the chicken was beyond tender. The process was completed in less than 30 minutes (it took me twice that long at home), and the dish was topped with cilantro and ready to be served.
What, I asked Lian, is the origin of this weird dish? She explained that although the restaurant is Henanese, Big Tray Chicken has roots in Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim province on the opposite side of the country, where it’s called Dapanji and is often served with noodles. Spice Village gives you the option of including hand-pulled ones, which is a fun kind of overkill, but I preferred rice.
Although there are challenges to recreating this at home — starting with the chopping of the chicken legs and continuing with the deep- and stir-frying, where it’s difficult to get high-enough heat — they’re surmountable. And not only can you get the technique pretty much right, you also can improve on the ingredients. I didn’t use the MSG or the Budweiser, and I made a fast chicken stock with the scraps of the bones, which allowed me to omit the chicken-bouillon powder Zeng used. I used better potatoes too. (As for shortcuts: start with boneless thighs; skip the marinating; fry once. It’s not quite as good, but it’s not a terrible downgrade.)
None of this is to take anything away from the Spicy Village version, which is delicious; it’s to encourage you to make it at home, where it will be just as tasty.