Spicy & Tasty: Can New York Clean Up Its Sichuan Act?
Spicy & Tasty
39-07 Prince Street, Flushing NY 11354 (map); 718-359-1601
Service: Brusque but efficient
Setting: Better than your average Chinese restaurant, but still a little rough around the edges
Compare It To: Grand Sichuan
Must-Haves: Sliced Fish with Spicy Sauce, Sliced Conch in Red Chili Sauce, Shredded Dry Beef with Spicy Sauce, Shredded Pork with Yellow Leek
Cost: Appetizers $2.95 to $11, mains $7.95 to $18.95
Note: Cash only
Despite my proclivities for pizza and burgers, at heart I'm a Sichuan food lover. Growing up in New York, my family (mainly my father) scoured the restaurants of Chinatown and beyond, gravitating towards those with the fieriest fare and the best renditions of Sichuan classics like Ma Po Dofu and dry-fried beef. In my subsequent 10 years in Boston, I came to learn what Sichuan food is all about. It was during this time that a long-time ban on the import of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns was lifted, and truly authentic cuisine could finally be reproduced in the United States.
You see, the heart and soul of the Sichuan cooking style known as ma-la relies on the interplay of two key ingredients: fiery chili peppers (la) and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns (ma). Here's something, and it's important:
Sichuan peppercorns are not spicy.
On their own, they've got no heat. None. Zip. Got that? That Sichuan peppercorns are fiery hot is a misconception held by many diners, even the most well-educated. Rather, Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing, novocaine-like effect on your mouth, with a citrus-y, camphorous aroma.
When Sichuan food is at its best, like at the fantastic Fuloon in Malden (a suburb of Boston), the fiery heat of the chili pepper should hit your mouth first in an all-out frontal attack. Only after you feel you can take no more does the numbing effect of the Sichuan pepper start kicking in, calming your nerves, and getting you ready for the next bite. It's this constant up and down, the mini-adrenaline rush that comes with each bite, that makes Sichuan food so intensely exciting.
Ever since returning from Boston last year (where there's a veritable treasure trove of excellent Sichuan cuisine: Fuloon, Zoe's, Chili Garden, Sichuan Gourmet, to name a few), I've been on a search for comparable spots in New York, working my way through most of Manhattan. So far, nothing comes close, with dishes being too mild, too gloppy, or completely lacking in Sichuan peppercorns (some restaurants still haven't received notice that they're available again).
So I've decided to turn my attention towards Flushing, starting with Spicy & Tasty, a restaurant highly respected by both critics and Sichuan obsessives alike.
It's certainly a lot classier than most casual Chinese dining. A spotless, brightly lit cold appetizer station is situated right by the front door. It's a promising sign when the first sight that greets you is a hotel pan full of crimson-red chili oil next to another one full of chopped garlic. At Spicy & Tasty, the cold dishes that traditional lead into a Sichuan meal are almost universally excellent.
Sliced Pork with Garlic Sauce ($7.50) comes swimming in a pool of the fiery red chili oil with a balanced sweet and vinegary dressing. Chopped peanuts and garlic top the dish. Definitely not for the fainthearted. The same dressing is not quite as successful on the dan dan mien (Cold Noodles with Red Chili Sauce, $3.95). The noodles are soft, lacking any kind of bite or texture. A better pasta choice would be the Wontons in Red Chili Sauce ($3.95), with a mildly sweet pork and leek filling.
With the Beef Tendon in Red Chili Sauce ($7.50), I had my first taste of a dish that came close to my standards for Sichuan food. It has a unique slippery-crunchy texture and doesn't have much flavor on its own, instead relying on a perfect balance of chili oil and a dusting of properly toasted Sichuan peppercorns. I found myself keeping a plate of this throughout the whole meal whenever I needed a Sichuan pepper fix.
Even better was the Sliced Conch in Red Chili Sauce ($11). Very similar in flavor and texture, but with an undercurrent of brininess. It's more expensive than the other appetizers its size, but big, balanced flavor makes up for it.
In typical Chinese restaurant style, service at Spicy & Tasty is fast and furious. Don't expect servers to wait for you to finish before bringing the next course—at one point, dishes had to be stacked on top of others so make room. Because of the oiliness of Sichuan food (some dishes come literally submerged in a pool of chili oil), it retains heat quite well. But once it starts to cool, it can get heavy much faster than other regional Chinese cuisines.
The Sliced Fish with Spicy Sauce ($14.95, above) is fiery and light when it first arrives but becomes cold and heavy as it sits. Though the sauce it's covered with is swimming with chili peppers, it's completely devoid of any Sichuan pepper, relegating it to good-but-not-great.
Mapo Dofu ($7.95) suffers a similar fate, unfortunately, as it's possibly my favorite dish of all time, and I get excited whenever I try it at even a mildly authentic Sichuan eatery. Rather than the unabashedly intense red slick of chili oil with the aroma of Sichuan peppercorns that should be covering the dish, it instead comes in a cornstarch-thickened red gravy.
Unlike the saucy dishes of Cantonese cuisine, the food here is served drier. Lamb Home Style ($10.85) and Double-Cooked Pork Belly ($9.95) come close to the mark, with dry, balanced sauces boasting judicious use of sugar and vinegar, and a smoldering, slow-building heat.
Not all the dishes are spicy. In fact, some of the best of the evening had no spice at all. A stir-fry of sliced pork and yellow leeks is made with meat that's first smoked over tea leaves then coated in cornstarch and egg whites, lending it a rich smokiness and luxuriously velvety texture. Far more complex than your average stir-fry. Smoked Tea Duck (half for $15.95) was similarly flavorful. Although it wasn't quite as juicy as I've had it at other places, super-crisp skin and a firm, cured texture to the meat were quite good in their own way.
I'd just about given up, resigning myself to food that was good—great even—but the meal turned toward excellence when the Shredded Dry Beef with Spicy Sauce ($12.95) arrived.
Finally! Some Sichuan Peppercorn!
As far as I know, dry-frying is a technique unique to Sichuan cuisine. Strips of beef are essentially deep fried in low-temperature oil until dehydrated and chewy, then stir-fried with fermented soy bean, celery, chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns. The frying technique renders the beef porous so that it can easily absorb the flavors of the sauce and the peppers. It's as intensely flavorful as beef jerky, but with a extraordinarily fiery heat that brings new meaning to the phrase "Pleasure to Burn."
It's sado-masochistic capsicum-powered self-flagellation, and everything that I love about Sichuan food. A glimmer of hope for New York!
With over a dozen dishes under my belt, there wasn't space to explore the rest of the menu to discover any other hidden gems, but my question remains: Why must such excellent dishes remain as the rare hidden gem? The talent, knowledge, and ingredients are obviously in the kitchen—I just wish that they'd manifest themselves more frequently in the dining room.
I'll readily admit that a lot of it might have to do with the fact that I only look part Asian and I order in English. Despite cajoling the waitress and informing her that I really really want my food cooked in the Sichuan style, I can't help but feel like they're still dumbing it down a bit.
Perhaps its time we Serious Lovers of Sichuan Food organize a strike to ban these establishments until they start taking our desires for spicy food seriously. (We can join forces with the Serious Lovers of Thai Food if necessary.)