Investigating a Chinese menu is like wandering through a big, old house. Lots of nooks and crannies, unexpected rooms around corners, and at least one room that you can enter three different ways - not one of which you can ever remember.
Here is where the dual menu comes in handy (see: Orient House, South Park Street's other new Chinese restaurant). The Americanized version provides a rough guide, at least, of what to expect. The traditional Chinese menu is like the architect's blueprint, if perhaps as indecipherable to the layperson.
Ichiban has no "easy" menu. Dining here is navigation by sense of taste or, by another measure, immersion learning. With either metaphor, your tongue reaps the rewards.
You'll find no crab rangoon here, no fortune cookies. Instead, a marker board greets you with a list of house specialties that includes frog legs and eel. This is not food-court Chinese - which is not to say that there aren't some familiar entry points. The fried rice is abundant and satisfying, and the lunch menu offers General Tso's chicken and egg drop soup. The latter is as golden as the sun, and about as hot; it's also rich and flavorful.
Kung pao comes from Sichuan province, and it's on offer here. Just as or more renowned is twice-cooked pork. One Ichiban server described it as Chinese bacon, and that's not far off. Rashers of pork, meat and fat in equal measure are enveloped in a thick sauce with a respectable kick. Bell peppers take up much of the remainder of the dish, and the effect is smoky, savory, but with a little zing - altogether wonderful.
But as with any immersion learning, hesitation offers no advantage. Take the very first risk, and order item #1 on the menu: ox tongue and tripe in chili sauce. Tongue can be chewy, and tripe can be rubbery, but assuredly, both are on their best behavior here. Served cold but with a rising spiciness, the meats are tender and perfect. Pairing this starter with the sweet, simple cucumber with Chinese dip would be wise, especially for those who need respite from the heat.
If your lips aren't tingling yet, consider the dandan noodles. Tender-maybe just a bit overcooked-noodles, dressed in a sweet-hot sauce with just the right amount of ground pork, are served in a mind-boggling quantity, given their meager price. Bargain isn't their sole virtue; these noodles are as delicious as they are affordable.
Noodle dishes and vegetables occupy the middle ground of the menu (take care, vegetarians, as Ichiban appears to count seafood as non-meat fare), giving way to the basic meat variations. San bei chicken, also known as three-cup chicken, is served chopped but still on the bone. This is a non-peppery dish, but still hot; the Thai basil-tinged sauce bubbles in the crockery bowl when it arrives. Spicy beef brisket is paired - without warning from the menu - with an equal amount of beef stomach. Both are too chewy, a rare misstep from this kitchen.
Culinary curiosities like dishes featuring pickled peppers (quite hot, but very flavorful) and dry-braised meats (cooked to a crisp before additional liquids are introduced) are Sichuan flourishes. There are plenty of odd cuts of meat, like pig ears and duck tongue, for the truly adventurous diner or fan of Cantonese-style omnivory.
This kitchen excels at hot pot, a style that bathes raw or lightly cooked ingredients in hot oil. The spicy fish with chili pepper sauce was described as one of the two hottest dishes on the menu, but only really delivered the pain in peppercorn-heavy spoonfuls. Bean sprouts and enoki mushrooms hold onto plenty of flavor from the oil, and the fish - probably catfish, though our server wasn't sure - is buttery-soft. A dining companion with international hot pot experience was over the moon at finding such a satisfying bowl in Madison.
The steamed buns described by the menu as "thin wrap" are great delivery vehicles for a vibrant (though over-cumined) ground lamb, but ultimately don't hold their own weight. Pitfalls are few at Ichiban, though foremost among them is wearing a clean white shirt. It's as bad an idea here as at the sauciest barbecue spot.
Ichiban's dining room is sprawling and multi-chambered, which befits its complicated and occasionally mystifying menu. Asking questions pays off; every server offered assistance and recommendations, and warmly. Take their advice - or just take a chance - and leave Ichiban with a blissfully numb-lipped smile.