Cheap Eats 2013: “Too hot for me.” “I don’t like spicy.”

We’ve heard it all. It’s easy to sit down at a Szechuan restaurant and wind up with a slate of mouth-scorching dishes, to walk out overwhelmed, numbed, and wondering if you’re missing something.

The key is to balance hot with cool (we recommend ordering garlicky pickled cucumbers to quench the fire) and focus on dishes that are spiced without being too spicy, such as cumin lamb or fish. Scallion pancake, a fried flatbread flecked with green onions, is hit-or-miss at most places, but order it anyway; a few tears of bread are a great antidote to a mouth-tinglingly hot dish like mapo tofu.

The other complaint about Szechuan is its oiliness. No, it’s not Cantonese or that elegant subset, Hong Kong-style, with its delicate seafood dishes. Think of it as the Chinese counterpart of the bacon-and-butter-boosted cooking of the American South—comfort food at its gutsiest and most elemental.

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.