[MEET THE HEAT] Szechuan Chef is all kinds of unlikely. Not only is it excellent food in the demilitarized zone of southwest Portland, it's excellent Portland Chinese food—period. Formerly home to a bastion of uninteresting Cantonese food, the two-year-old restaurant now highlights the fiery and mouth-numbing cuisine of China's Sichuan province. The room is big and bright, the menu long and occasionally duplicative, but if you choose well, your palate will be amply rewarded—even if it does take a while to quench the flames. Among menu favorites are a couple classics. Chong Qing hot chicken ($11.95) offers wok-fried bits of chicken served in a heaping mound with dried chilies, chopped scallion and peanuts, while the cumin lamb ($12.95) offers slices of meat well-seasoned with the namesake spice and ground Sichuan peppercorns, that magic ingredient that provides a pleasantly bizarre numbing effect with slight citrus overtones. My most recent discovery, however, is an appetizer from the "New Chef's Specials" menu: hot & spicy dried bean curd ($6.95), a small plate of cubed bean curd seasoned with plenty of salt, powdered Sichuan peppercorn, dried chili, toasted peanuts and sections of green and white scallion. One pepper burns your tongue like fire, while the other pepper numbs it, just like IcyHot. MICHAEL C. ZUSMAN.
Don't hesitate to ask for help figuring out what to order. Unlike at some Chinese restaurants, service here is accommodating.