[Houston] Sichuan Cuisine, the real deal--long
Ok, I have 3000 words on this place which obviously flipped my switch in a good way. I have three parts. Here is Part One. Shoud I post the others as replies to this, or should I start a new topic? Seems like the 'self-reply' idea might make the most sense. Ideas?
Here's my report:
9114 Bellaire Blvd
(I'm including this to make your search easier...)
Through a bit of Web sleuthing, I stumbled upon what just might be one, no, it IS one, of the best Chinese restaurants in the state of Texas. I’ve not been to them all, of course, but I’ve never experienced a place that so closely resembles meals I’ve had at what many consider to be near the top of the heaps in NYC and the SF Bay Area, Grand Sichuan International (Ninth Ave/50th St. branch) and China Village (Albany CA), respectively.
The place in question is not-so-mysteriously called Sichuan Cuisine, located at 9114 Bellaire Blvd. in Houston. I live in Austin, and after careful inspection of their online menu, I knew it was a place worth driving 3 hours to do a bit of experimenting. During the entire length of the Highway 71/I-10 route, I could already taste the mouth-numbing effects of the ‘ma la’ seasoning the Sichuan kitchen is known for; the numbing comes from the fruit of the ‘prickly ash’, known in this country as the Sichuan peppercorn. Combined with a generous portion of simply hot red chiles, Sichuanese cooking is famous in China for being the Mexican food of that country, and rightfully so. Some meals I’ve had at Grand Sichuan in NYC have left my mouth tingling for hours afterward, so intense is the sensation. Ahhhh! But like any self-respecting drug addict, you can’t, once you’ve had it, help wanting more, and more, and more.
Ok, so I pulled into a totally jammed parking lot and, somehow, managed to find a place directly in front of the restaurant, just like in the movies. I walked through the front door and got a bit nervous because there was *no one* else there, save the owners. “Crap, this place must suck,” I thought to myself. But then I noticed the menu on the front counter said “Shanghai Restaurant” and I confirmed with the frowning couple that I was in the wrong place and did a quick 180 back out the door. Three hours on the road must have made me dizzy!
All trepidation disappeared when I finally walked into the absolutely jammin’ eatery next door, tables littered with half-full (or, half-empty?) plates of yummy looking food.
The menu arrived and was far snappier than I’d imagined: it had several pages of photos of select dishes, enough to help, somewhat, at least, the Sichuan virgin navigate the extensive offerings. But I already knew, more or less, what I was going to start with. Had to do some of the staples in order to judge the place based on their versions of the “chicken fried steak” and “fish and chips” of the Sichuan kitchen. Ok, what I ordered had nothing to do with chicken or fish, but rather, well, you understand: order some things that have more or less standard preparations and see how those fare; then dive into the more interesting options.
So it was Dan Dan Noodles, “Dragon” Wontons and Double Cooked Pork, about as basic a Sichuan selection as you can get. When I placed my order, the waitress asked, “Is that all you want?” Crap! I suddenly felt inadequate, but why? I knew that was more food than two people *should* eat, yet I started running down the menu in my head to see what I’d forgotten. Well, I’d not ordered about 200 other things, but, except for maybe feeling the need to balance the protein, yummy fat, and starch, with something like a green vegetable, why would I want or need to order more, at least for lunch. For I knew, and she didn’t, that I’d already planned to return for dinner that very night.
Ok, the food? Well, it was not transcendent, but I figured, compared to the aforementioned GSI and CV, it would be hard to impress my oh-so-cultured palate. But, bar none, it was better than any Chinese food I’ve had in Texas, or elsewhere, save these other treasured Meccas.
The noodles were very good. Just as they should be, they comprised a heap of noodles covering a spicy “ma la” sauce, and topped with an almost dry topping of seasoned ground pork and chopped pickled cabbage. Ya gotta stir all this up to mingle all the flavors, then dig in. There was an adequate, though far from excessive, amount of Sichuan peppercorn, not enough to numb, but decidedly present. Nice and warm. My main complaint was with the noodles themselves...I found them just a tad over cooked, not enough resistance to the tooth. But otherwise, a very respectable rendition of this classic.
I’m not sure, but I think Dragon Wontons are so named because their wrapping is a bit floppy and slippery, reminding one of, I suppose, a dragon’s wavy, spiked tail. Or maybe it’s because their red-chile oil topping is hotter than a dragon’s breath. Take your pick. But do pick these when you visit this place. They are delicious. The filling is the ubiquitous ground pork and who knows what, tasty, but nothing out of the ordinary. What lifts them above the mundane is that very “ma la” chile oil. This stuff rocks! But be sure to stir the topping thoroughly into the rest of the bowl because, when it arrives, there is an amazing concentration of ground chiles/pepper on the top three or four dumplings. Yeah, they are really dumplings I guess, though not properly so for some reason I don’t understand. These are wontons...maybe it’s the manner in which they are folded, not sure. In any case, they are worth a try, and certainly a bargain at only $2.95 for 10 of these slippery, dragony suckers. Felt like a cocky St. George when I slurped up the last of these, and all by my lonesome!
Save the best for last, though it was the first dish to arrive at the table. Double cooked, or twice cooked, pork, properly made, is a hunk of pork belly, like uncured bacon, which is blanched, or boiled, for the initial cooking, then sliced and stir fried with lots of oil, chiles, leeks and sometimes hoisin or bean sauce and maybe fermented black beans. Sichuan Cuisine’s version arrived looking perfectly done, properly twice cooked. It appears to be a heap of undercooked bacon, stir fried with some vegetables. Well, that’s sort of what it is, but it’s way more. For one, it’s not undercooked, it’s just not crisp as we expect bacon to be. One friend calls it “floppy pork.” But let me assure you, the flavors and textures are just perfect. The pork doesn’t crackle, no, but it is far from chewy...and the combination of the chiles, leeks and other slightly sweet flavorings creates a welcome relief from the driving heat of the opening dishes. But that is not to say this dish itself is not peppery. It is, but heat is a relative thing. And the leeks offer the perfect foil for the, yes, fatty pork.
One thing you’ll notice after eating enough Sichuan food is the spare touch with the traditional thickeners like cornstarch or tapioca starch. There is no gloppy brown sauce so typical of most Americanized Chinese, but rather, a more naturally occurring sauce, though much of the “sauce” is red oil — Sichuan food might be considered to be over oily by our tastes, but that is quite typical of this highly refined kitchen.
I left the place full, fat and happy. Wondering how I would be able to pull off another meal there in just a few hours. Oh, now I remember! The food is exciting, compelling and addictive. I’ll be back soon, ladies!
Oh, there is a menu online; it is not absolutely current, but close. Certainly worth a peek:
You're making my mouth water. I live in SA, and although (with the help of my Hunanese associate) have found a few decent Chinese restaurants, but no Sichuan or Hunan cuisine. He told me Houston is where the good Chinese restaurants are in TX and from reading your review, it sounds like he's right.
I was in NY a few weeks ago (used to live there) and in 6 days, ate at Grand Sichuan twice (the one on St. Marks and the one in Chelsea) and Wu Liang Ye. We had one dish that must have had 200 Sechuan peppers and tons of peppercorns. Yum!
Okay, I'm just gonna go for it. Here is Part Two of my Sichuan Holiday in Houston!, Part Three will follow:
Sichuan Cuisine, Houston
9114 Bellaire Blvd
Part One has some intro material to this place and Sichuan cooking, so you might want to read it first.
Lunch was way too much for one person, so sue me! All it meant was that dinner would end up being later than 5pm! So around 8, I returned to Sichuan Cuisine for another bout with the menu. I knew my main entree would be an incendiary chicken dish, but with what should I flank it? I decided on a cold noodle dish and a green vegetable to balance out some of the heavier stuff I’d already eaten that day, and to assuage somewhat, my guilt of not having a proper vegetable during the course of the day.
After ordering (and after fetching some Tsing Tao from the supermarket across the parking lot—Sichuan Cuisine does not have a liquor license, but they don’t mind BYOBs) the waitress informed me they were out of the cold noodles! So I opted for what was supposed to be a hot version of the same dish. What I was served was very much like the Dan Dan noodles they’d given me at lunch, the main difference seemed to be that, instead of mixing the ground pork topping with preserved cabbage, this time the pork was cooked with minced bits of Sichuan preserved vegetable, a kind of pickled radish with a unique, unmistakable flavor. The noodles were decent, but too redundant of lunch, so I pushed them aside to concentrate on the amazing chicken and the so-so sautéed greens.
The chicken, Chong Qing Spicy Chicken, appeared to be a huge pile of nothing but fried red chiles. But on closer examination, hidden within all that potentially dangerous heat were small, one-inch cubes of crisp-fried boneless chicken (there is another, more traditional version with bones also on the menu), that pick up some heat from the chiles, but not too much; what adheres more to these unique little chicken nuggets (oh, in the best sense of that now screwed up phrase) are Sichuan peppercorns, so that every fourth or fifth bite offers at least a hint of tingle, and sometimes a wallop of outright numbness. And it is so good! This is certainly one of the best dishes on the menu. Next time I’ll try the more trad versions with bones... DO NOT miss this dish!
The vegetable was an average plate of sautéed Chinese green vegetable, You Cai, related to the Italian “cima di rape”, something like a turnip green. It was also laced with chiles, but was not really “spicy”. It was ok, but next time I’d opt for the sautéed pea shoots or spinach.
Boxed up the leftovers—none of which was chicken—and headed out for the night, to dream of dishes still untried!
And the grand finale! I can't wait to go back to Houston for more of this place...
Sichuan Cuisine, Houston,
9114 Bellaire Blvd
After stuffing myself twice on a Saturday at this fantastic Chinese eatery, I was not sure I could really drag myself back for a third visit the next day, plus, staying at my brother’s place, a 40-minute drive, presented another slight barrier. Ah, but true love prevailed and I convinced my bro, his wife, my sister and my niece to travel to Sichuan for dinner on Sunday.
And, since I’ve already bored you with all the flowery prose and spurious details, let’s look at the food. (I ran out of the house without my digital camera, or we would be doing that a bit more literally as well as figuratively.)
We started with the Chengdu Dumplings, a bowl of 10 handmade dumplings coated with a fiery looking paste of dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, with a generous dab of pureed raw garlic slathered on top. The dumplings themselves were fine, the usual handmade wrapper cloaking the usual ground pork filling. The sauce was a bit sweeter than for the Dragon Wontons from Saturday, and though it looked like it could launch an Atlas rocket, was not really that hot...but still offered plenty of kick...and not for the squeamish. I’d certainly have them again.
Next was a cold appetizer, the Bang Bang Chicken, which is one of the standards of Sichuan cooking; it is sometimes referred to as Strange Flavor Chicken, and sometimes the name is transliterated as Bon Bon Chicken. Anyway, it is a dish of simple shredded boiled chicken breast and thin scallion threads, sauced with one of the most interesting, maybe strangely flavored (!) concoctions on the menu. Hot as hell, but with a hint of vinegary tartness, a bit of sweetness, and a hint of sesame in the background. I’ve had this in other places where the sesame flavor is more pronounced, and I think that is a more traditional way of making this dish. I enjoyed this tremendously, but would have preferred more sesame. Do try it.
I had to have the classic Sichuan Tea Smoked Duck, but was disappointed by its dryness. The flavor was excellent—smokey like a country ham—but the texture was just too desiccated, and it should not be that way, at least in my opinion. But this is probably a stylistic choice made by the chef...I know this duck can also turn out to be juicy and succulent. Still worth trying, but not as the focus of a meal.
We sampled two other Sichuan standards: First was the table’s favorite, Smoked Pork with Garlic Leeks, which was more or less a very smokey bacon, blanched, then stir fried with leeks. The flavors were bright and clear and the sensation was 100% pleasurable. The pork just smokey enough, and just chewy enough, while the leeks (probably just “normal” leeks, not the advertised garlic variety) provided a bit of sweetness as well as their mildly oniony-ness. I will definitely order this again, and even my ultra-picky sister ate it and seemed to enjoy it. I think this dish is influenced by Hunan cooking, or would guess so because of the use of smoked pork instead of fresh.
The other dish was their version of “water-boiled beef” which they call Boiled Beef in Spicy Sauce. It is tender slices of beef boiled in a spicy sauce, as advertised. Ahhh, but that sauce! Lots of ground red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns to provide a nearly adequate amount of mouth numbing, all atop a mixture of cooked vegetable slices including leek, napa cabbage, and celery. My complaint about this dish was that it was a tad under-salted which caused it to be just a bit flat...a small amount of added salt would have made all the flavors “pop” and would have provided more depth to the whole thing. So remember that...ask for some salt for the table just in case.
The last dish we ordered is incorrectly translated on the menu as Ground Pork with Cow Bean when in fact it was one of my Sichuan faves, Pickled String Beans with Ground Pork. The beans (probably yard-long beans actually) are mildly pickled, then cut into small quarter-inch pieces and stir fried with pork and a small amount of red chile. This version was a bit different from others I’ve had in that the pork seemed to be blanched, not fried, and there was the distinctive flavor of sesame oil which lingered on the palate after each bite...not a bad thing by any means. This is an odd dish for some, but my brother thought it was his favorite. I certainly rank it near the top. You won’t find this in any other Chinese place in this state, I’d bet at least a dollar on that!
My sister and niece each had a plate of American Chinese stir fried chicken, complete with the typical gloppy brown sauce mentioned in Part One. And the moral of this is, if you try this place, stay away from the familiar dishes and try the real deal. You will not be disappointed, though, as I said, some dishes were more successful than others.
A couple of notes. The service is a bit impersonal and hurried. Don’t expect a lot of help in ordering, and, if you are not Asian, they will probably assume you want your food tamed down. Make sure you tell them you want it Chinese style and spicy. (Oh, and I lied in this part: we didn't get the dishes in the order described, that would have been the ideal...in fact, the apps arrived last!) Also, in my three visits, aside from me and my family, I saw exactly seven other non-Asians enjoying this food, and I think this attests to the quality and authenticity of the place. Several dishes featuring duck tongue, and even more enveloping pig intestines provide even more evidence for this place being the real thing. But even the over-lauded Houston food critic Robb Walsh obviously didn’t “get it” when he reviewed Sichuan Cuisine in the Houston Press some months back, and his lukewarm review is good proof of that. Had he dug a little deeper, he might have uncovered some of the real gems this place has to offer.
And here are some items on my list for future visits: Kung Pao Chicken (this is a Sichuan classic, and I think they probably do it right), Steamed Pork with Pickled Vegetable (slow, braised pork belly with preserved cabbage, yummy), Spicy Tender Tofu (sometimes called Flower Tofu, it is amazing, the tofu just a vehicle for the sauce), Onion or Scallion Pancake, some of the soups and soup noodles, Beef Jerky in Chile Sauce (a cold, yet fiery app), Cucumber with Garlic Sauce (cold app), Pork Elbow in Home Style (a pork “knuckle” steamed, then served with a spicy sauce...am not familiar with this and eager to sample something new), a number of other pork dishes too numerous to mention, a couple of other beef dishes including Fried Beef with Red Hot Pepper and Pickle, and some of the lamb, most notably the Fried Lamb with Hot Cumin; there are several fish dishes I’d like to try, and several other tofu dishes including the Sichuan classic Ma Po Tofu; other veggies include the Eggplant with Garlic Sauce, the Sautéed Potato with Green Pepper (yes, potato, and it can be delicious this way), Stir Fried Pea Pod (actually pea shoots); and some time, with a group, one of the traditional Sichuan Hot Pots.
I can’t say this is the best Sichuan food I’ve had, but it is the real deal and is certainly the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in the state of Texas. Definitely worth exploring, and worth more than a couple of visits. Go with several folks in order to sample a greater variety of dishes. You may hate this place, I don’t particularly like Bruce Springsteen, but chances are, if you like your food distinctive and a bit on the wild, hot side, you will, like I have, become addicted to the stuff and keep going back for more.
Might have to make a trip to Houston. The Chong Qing chicken is what we had in NY, except we had the fresh-killed version. Too bad there's nothing like that here in SA.
Wonderful piece, Dancer! Thanks so much ... you've got me looking forward to visiting this place with a copy of your posting.
Glad there's finally some real Sichuan style food in Texas. This country has been fooled by pseudo-Szechwan style food for perhaps three decades and it's nice to see the authentic stuff making its way across the country. Without trying the place I would expect Sichuan Cuisine to be better than Grand Sichuan in Manhattan, which while pretty good, is not wholly authentic. For the real stuff you should come to Los Angeles, which has become the center of authentic Sichuan and Hunan style food in the U.S., or to Flushing in Queens, which is the real Chinatown in New York City.
Oddly, just two days ago, I found another Sichuan place, this time in my backyard here in Austin. I will report on it later. It's not fantastic, but it will be my Chinese of choice here from now on.
Anyway, I know LA has had a great influx of folks from Sichuan and have read good things about a few places there, though they seem to open and close fairly quickly. And Flushing...yes, Spicy and Tasty there is Number One on my list for my next NYC trip, hopefully sooooooon. From what I read, it will certainly push Grand Sichuan aside for the best Sichuan in NY. Can't wait. Queens has some great food, for sure...last visit had me consuming a wonderful "crispy pata" at a Filipino place...it was amazing. Now, if only someone in Austin or Houston would deep fry me a pig's knuckle, I'd be in heaven!
Now, Sichuan Cuisine in Houston is not better than GSI in NY. The flavors are not quite there, something is missing. Hell, maybe it is more "authentic", but I must say I've enjoyed the food more at GSI over the course of 15-20 visits there. The Houston place just doesn't hit the mark flavor-wise the way GSI does, in my opinion. Seems like GSI takes a little more care with the food. For example, the Smoked Pork with Garlic Leeks in Houston may have very well been made with commercially available bacon, though a higher quality one that Hormel or whatever. It's been a couple years since I had that dish at GSI, I am fairly certain the smoked pork was done in-house, or at least, I'm certain it was not simply bacon (though i suppose smoked pork belly is bacon for all practical purposes???). It seemed less uniformly sliced, more "rustic" somehow. That said, the Houston dish was still delightful! Oh well, like any Italian will tell you, put 100 cooks from Bologna in a room and you will have 100 recipes for ragu. Each to his or her own. Sichuan cooking is certainly the same, even on home turf.