The Gastronauts Invade Flushing's Little Pepper
With the possible exception of the Golden Shopping Mall’s Chengdu stall, Flushing’s Xiao La Jiao, or Little Pepper, is my favorite spot for Sichuan food. So when I heard that The Gastronauts would be hosting a 16-course dinner there with a heavy offal emphasis, I immediately RSVP’d.
The “club for adventurous eaters” dines monthly on offal and other bizarre treats at restaurants all over the city. “This started as six friends and now we’re bursting at the seams,” co-founder Benjamin Pauker told me. That was certainly the case Tuesday night. I’d never seen Xiao La Jiao so crowded. Nor had I ever seen so many non-Chinese in the house. What follows are the highlights of the dinner. It was rather hard to take notes with all that food flying around; think dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner, but way spicier and way guttier. When I got home and looked in the mirror there was a faint red blotch of chili oil on the tip of my nose. Such is the frenzy that occurs when 40 or so like-minded eaters get together for a Sichuan blowout.
Eager Gastronauts waiting to be fed. Even though the club has been around for more than two years, this was the first dinner held in a Sichuan restaurant.
Preserved egg with green pepper, or qing jiao pi dan. Like everyone else at our table, I was pleasantly surprised by this dish. The wobbly black bits of egg had a creamy texture and weren’t at all funky tasting. It’s hard to believe something this good results from curing eggs for 100 days in a mixture of quicklime and ashes.
Every other Sichuan spot calls this tangle of noodles with bits of meat, pickled veggies, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, dan dan mian. The kid at Xia La Jiao who was kind enough to translate the night’s menu insisted that their version is known as gan sao niu rou mian. For the record The Gastronauts menu listed it as “Mmm mmm muthaf'n spicy dandan noodles.”
Juan ni du pian, or shredded pork stomach in spicy sauce. The ribbons of pig stomach were pleasantly chewy and had some nice heat thanks to their bath of chili oil.
I’ve only had duck tongue once before, but the Sichuan version called xiang la ya she was great. I crunched through the bony bit in the middle, as some less experienced Gastronauts were heard saying, “I didn’t know tongues had bones.”
Gan bain fei chang, or intestines with Sichuan pickled vegetable. Fried chili peppers gave this dish a respectable heat level. I’ve no idea from what animal these glorious guts came.
Zhi bao yuang rou, or lamb with spicy cumin sauce, is one of Xiao La Jiao’s best dishes. What’s not to like about chunks of lamb rubbed with chili pepper and cumin and showered with cilantro?
I’ve been to Xiao La Jiao dozens of times and they’re always out of rabbit. So it was no surprise that it had been axed from the Gastronaut menu that night. Nevertheless, halfway through the meal waiters brought out plates of hong tu, or succulent roasted rabbit meat.
Ma la niu jin, or beef tendon in spicy sauce, was a big hit.
Kidneys have always repulsed me. Shui zhu yao pian, or braised braised pig kidney in spicy soup base, may just make me change my tune. The organs were sliced thin thus rendering the flesh insanely tender. They might just be the best pig kidneys I’ve ever had.
Xiao La Jiao doesn’t play when it comes to dishes that are listed as having “spicy soup base.” Some folks at the table groused that none of the items were quite as incendiary as they’d hoped. Then someone pointed out that the angry red lake in which the kidneys cavorted was pretty spicy. Since we didn’t have any soup bowls I ladled some broth into a tea cup. It did the trick.
Kudos to the Gastronaut gang for organizing this dinner. Rarely do I get the chance to eat so much offal at one sitting. And here's to the folks at Xiao La Jiao for performing so well on what is without a doubt one of their busiest nights ever. Did I forget to mention while the dinner was going on the house continued to serve other customers?
Xiao La Jiao (Little Pepper)
133-43 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing NY 11354 (at Prince Street; map)