Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sichuan Cuisine

It's an odd restaurant that I really, really like but won't recommend to everyone. Sichuan Cuisine, at 9114 Bellaire Boulevard in Houston's Chinatown, is definitely one of those restaurants. Sichuan Cuisine is an often-brilliant, always-authentic hole in the wall in the vast Diho Square shopping center on Bellaire, with a clear focus on regional Sichuan cooking.

Sichuan cuisine features a lot of poultry, a lot of pig, and a good amount of freshwater fish (owing to Sichuan's landlocked status). Oh, and small mountains of hot peppers. Pepperheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your stomach linings! Sichuan Cuisine deploys spice with abandon, but rarely overwhelms the flavor of the food. The sheer number of peppers sometimes seems intended for comical effect: the ChongQin Chicken, for instance, is literally buried beneath an inch of dried red peppers.

But the carpets of capsaicin are moderated somewhat by the nearly ubiquitous Sichuan peppercorns, actually the husk of a small seed from the prickly ash tree. The peppercorns have a bright, lemony flavor with a peppery finish and add an intense aroma to the food. But the flavor is only one component of the peppercorn's appeal; equally important to Sichuan cooking is the almost novocaine-like numbness that the peppercorn imparts. Coupled with the heat of the chile peppers, the two create a sensation called "ma la," or hot-numb, which is the signature of Sichuan cooking.

Sichuan Cuisine is really into ma la. The appetizers offer a good introduction. Dan Dan Noodles ($1.95) are deliciously slippery, udon-like noodles in a soy-based sauce with fresh basil, peanuts, and chiles. The noodles offer a delicate kick at the end, and a hint of numbness. My five-year-old took a bite of the Dan Dan Noodles and announced, "Dad, we can come here all the time."

More pronounced are the Dragon Wontons ($2.95), flat pork-filled dumplings in a red-oil sauce. The wontons are excellent, and leave a tingling numbness on your lips. Also outstanding are the Chengdu Dumplings and the Crispy Yam Cakes with Sesame ($2.95), a cousin of the sesame bean balls so popular at dim sum palaces.

But it's in the main courses that the ma la comes into its own. ChongQin Chicken ($7.50) -- tiny cubes of fried chicken dusted with salt and Sichuan peppercorns, then smothered under dried red chiles -- is utterly addictive, even better after a night in the refrigerator. Twice-Cooked Pork ($6.95) is outstanding: chunks of pork belly (that's right - bacon, baby!) boiled and then sauteed with leeks, garlic, chiles and peppercorns. Outrageously delicious and decadent, and an Atkins Diet superstar if ever there were one. Any of the entrees will feed two or three adults, easily.

The Boiled Slice Fish came recommended to me, despite its, um, less than compelling name. It's an interesting dish but not for everyone; perhaps not for me. Reminiscent of a Vietnamese hot pot, the fish arrives piping hot in a soup-like sauce of chilis, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. The taste -- powerful, hot, and garlicky as hell -- is delicious, but the unctuous oiliness that works well with the restaurant's stir-fried dishes is kind of overwhelming here.

The service is, like many Chinese restaurants in town, brusque but functional. The first time I took the family to the restaurant, we actually received excellent (and friendly) service; familiarity has, I fear, bred contempt, or perhaps we've lost our novelty as The White Family in The Corner. But the focus is on the food at Sichuan Cuisine, and the food is outstanding.


At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

During a recent trip to China, I noticed the layer of peppers and thought the same thing - "surely this is not necessary". But the food was soooooooooo good that I vowed to find a Sichuan restaurant when I got back home. Off to try this place. Hope it as good as South Beauty Restaurant in Beijing!


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