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Spicy & Tasty: The Whole Fish Dish

There are lots of threads about what to order at Spicy & Tasty. I've just read through six of them. But none of them mentions the whole fish dishes which, I realized last night, are arguably the jewel in the S & T crown. So I've decided to start a new thread. to write a paean to the whole fish dish.

Before yesterday, I never thought of ordering it; why spend $16 when I can get wonderful enhanced pork for $8? But yesterday at about 4 PM, I was in my Manhattan domicile perusing menus and it suddenly hit me, I must order a whole fish!!

Less than an hour later, I was in Flushing. It's a great time to go to Spicy & Tasty, the place is empty and they can devote their full attention to your order. I told the woman at the register I wanted a whole fish and I wanted it spicy. She recommended the "Fresh Tilapia Chengdu Style" (there are TEN other whole fish dishes on the menu!) Anticipation mounted and then it arrived. A huge platter, a whole fish swimming in a lake of fire-red chili oil. (Wong Kar-Wei, whose films feature bright, lurid neon colors, would have put it in his next movie if he'd seen it.) The fish was all but hidden under a blanket of minced everything: ground meat, garlic cloves, scallions, bright red chilis, etc etc. It tasted so good! Sometimes Spicy & Tasty doesn't make their dishes quite spicy enough; this was not one of those times. I can still feel it but it was worth it, just to taste the complex layerings of fire and spice that underpin any great Sichuan dish.

Why spend $16? I found out why. It's a bargain.

Previous threads on what to order:





http://www.chowhound.com/topics/241445 (Festival of Pork


Spicy & Tasty
39-07 Prince St, Queens, NY 11354

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  1. That's a fantastic recommendation. I am a veteran of S and T's "fish filet in fresh hot pepper," which I believe is some sort of bass, sauteed and then submerged in a Szechuan-peppercorn-laden red broth. But the whole fish option is intriguing, and I can't wait to try it. I know this is a bit off-topic, but I have also found some of the whole fish dishes at Minangasli (Indonesian) and Sripraphai (Thai) to be incredibly flavorful and very interestingly spiced.

    2 Replies
    1. re: bennyt

      The "fish filet in fresh hot pepper" aka water-cooked (水煮) fish is completely different. It is one of my favorites. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuizhu

    2. please see the Melanie Wong "Ex San Francisco hound reunion at Spicy...." of Dec. 25, 2005. Also has great pictures-- one of the Chengdu fish.

      1 Reply
      1. re: wew

        I remember that thread well and before posting what I wrote above, I spent a while searching for it to see if she had whole fish. I couldn't find it and I believed that she didn't have the whole fish. She wrote that she had better versions of every dish in Los Angeles and that is why I thought she didn't order Chengdu fish because she couldn't have written that if she did.

        But she did. Here's her photo: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/37/774...

        And here's her post, found thanks to you:

      2. I'm a fan of whole fish preps, but prefer the subtler steamed versions you can find in Cantonese or Jiangnan cuisine. I also have a couple of problems with the type of dish you described. First, it always seems plainly bizarre to me to order seafood from the cuisine of a land-locked place like Sichuan (yes, I know about fish farms); secondly, it seems a shame to obliterate the delicate flavor of a fish with heavy spicing of any kind.

        10 Replies
        1. re: Xiao Yang

          I doubt you'll ever find a wild fish at any inexpensive restaurant in Flushing. At these prices they are all farm raised. I believe that tilapia is the world's most common farm raised fish. If the fish is prepared properly, [fried (crispy outside, moist inside) works best imho], then the sauce should remain distinct from the taste of the fish.
          In Thailand, fried fish topped with a somtom-type sauce is very common. It's equally spicy and distinct tasting as the S&T Sichuan sauce. The fish retains its flavor just as it does at S&T. My favorite fish for this preparation is snakehead fish but it can be done with almost any fish.

          1. re: el jefe

            Call me weird, but I can't taste fish very well with a mouthful of chiles. But then again, Tilapia doesn't have much of a fish taste to begin with, which may be why it is so popular in come circles.

            1. re: Xiao Yang

              I feel the same way. Most fish has a delicate flavor and loading it up with heavy spicing doesn't work for me. I think we're in the minority about this, at least on this board. People order a whole fish dish at Mina's that has the exact same drawbacks. It left me unimpressed although my dinner companions thought it was pretty good. More proof that tastes vary.

              1. re: Bob Martinez

                Hey, I like both! But it is a difference in culinary philosophy. Cantonese, like modern French or American, tries to use the best ingredients and bring out their flavor. Maybe tastes change over time. 50 years ago, a French chef would have thought the fish was naked unless you loaded it with a rich, creamy classic sauce. (Actually I love those rich, creamy sauces!)

          2. re: Xiao Yang

            Yes I too like the subtler steamed versions (although at times Jiangnan fish can be far from subtle) but it's like comparing Italian food to Thai. Both have their place.

            About Sichuan.... the name means four rivers and the rivers are full of fish. So fish was to be found in traditional cuisine. Also if you restricted your Sichuan eating to dishes that have been around for hundreds of years, you wouldn't order spicy food at all. Sichuan food was relatively bland until about 200 years ago. It's a dynamic cuisine.

            1. re: Brian S

              I'm not a fan of the "Squirrel Fish" dish, if that's what you are referring to, or red-cooked fish in Jiangnan cuisine. I'm well aware of Sichuan's abundance of fish (and many ways of preparing them) but Tilapia, AFAIK, is not a fresh-water fish.

              1. re: Xiao Yang

                I believe it IS a fresh water fish, though it is hardy and can also live in brackish or salty water (and of course it's not native to China) Still, I've seen people criticize the fish served in NYC Jiangnan restaurants because it's American croker and not Chinese yellowfish, but I'd prefer a fresh croaker to a yellowfish caught a month ago in Jiangnan and sent over on a slow boat from China.

                1. re: Brian S

                  Well, you are right, sort of. Tilapia apparently thrive in brackish lagoons and canals, and in the lower reaches of rivers, and therefore are more or less coastal in nature.


                  On the yellowfish issue, my wife mostly uses them for soup, and finds that the frozen, imported huang yu comes closer to the flavor she's used to in Shanghai than the local, fresh version, though I can't detect much difference. Her steamed whole fish always start out live at the point of purchase, so of course she prefers local varieties (or farmed stock) for these.

              2. re: Brian S

                Actually the spicy aspect of Sichuan cuisine was known to contemporary Chinese writers as far back as the Song dynasty (960-1279.) There existed then a spicy type of garden pea and brown peppers (Sichuan peppers) were known to be used. Yes the the red chili pepper was introduced relatively late into Chinese cuisine (along with peanuts, corn, potatoes, squash and tomatoes) and most quickly adopted in Sichuan and Hunan. In general, if the seafood is fresh, then steaming brings out the best flavor. When fish starts getting old, the use of sauces and fiery spices helps to mask the lack of freshness and possible odor.

                1. re: scoopG

                  I think you're right about the Sichuan pepper. I just learned that Sichuan restaurants were popular in HANGZHOU during the southern Song dynasty! (Maybe that's why they are popular in Taipei today?)

                  A lot of Sichuan recipes were used by common people, not just by the rich as in other regions, and as you say if all you can get is some swampy fish dredged up from the river, you'll want to mask the flavor any way you can.

            2. In my experience, Chinese know how to cook fish extremely well and in a variety of style, from ching-ching-dan-dan (subtle and flavorful) in the Shanghai style to peppery (but still maritime) in Szechuan style. The key is getting the fish to the table very fresh, which is why the pick-one-from-the-tank, bang-it-in-the-head, cook-and-serve-immediately method is so popular. Different fish taste good with different treatments, and Chinese cooks will use an oily fish (basa, catfish etc.) with spicy or flavorful sauces where a flounder or more delicate-tasting fish will only get the lightest and most perfect of steamings--nothing else required. The best to do, if you can, is get your waiter to tell you what fish is the best that day and take a chance. A culinary sdventure for $20 bucks....

              1. I don't see it on their menu anymore (perhaps it's an off the menu dish), but I've had their braised fish in hot bean sauce that was absolutely fantastic (much, much better than Grand Sichuan's version). I remember a few years ago, half the restaurant was eating that fish dish which prompted me to order it.

                3 Replies
                1. re: Miss Needle

                  Thanks for the tip! It is on the menu that I have (which is not the latest version). On my menu, it is number 128. But when I ordered the Chengdu fish at the restaurant, THAT dish was number 128. So maybe it is no longer on the menu. But I can ask for it. In any event, it IS on Little Pepper's menu.

                  1. re: Brian S

                    The menu #'s @ S + T seem to change from when ever someone mentions a number here. In fact, when I've written down the menu #'s from a meal, well they change then as well.

                    1. re: MOREKASHA

                      Maybe this follows from the Copenhagen Interpretation

                      I want to try that hot bean fish. But not this week, I am still feeling the effects of Friday's super-spicy fish!

                2. I had a different whole fish preparation when I was there last year with a big group of chowish types, from CH and elsewhere, it was braised in a special metal pot in a red hot sauce with fermented black beans in it (it was just like the mapo tofu sauce I thought), surrounded by chunks of soft tofu...the meat was succulent, I don't know what kind of fish it was. It was a killer dish! I don't know what it was on the menu, a chinese speaking member of our group took over the ordering and asked for it specifically.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: prunefeet

                    Yes! That's the braised fish in hot sauce that I was talking about earlier! It is so delicious!

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      I wonder if it was the same thing I ate in my first meal at Chengdu Heaven. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/451804 It sounds like it.

                      1. re: Brian S

                        The sauce sounds similar, but the prep I had at spicy and tasty was whole fish, not nuggets. I can't remember if it was breaded -- if so, it was lightly breaded. Fish tastes so much better on the bone.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          Miss Needle, I'm sure it wasn't breaded. It seemed like a special occassion dish, so delicious!

                          1. re: prunefeet

                            You're right. I remember now. I also remember going to the restaurant a few times trying to order that dish but could never find it on the menu again. Perhaps it's off the menu this time. That was really the best Sichuan fish preparation I've ever had.

                    2. re: prunefeet

                      had that dish also; very bony, if I remember correctly. usually I just like ordering the carp (li-yu) in bean sauce (dou-ban).

                      1. re: bigjeff

                        It seems to me that the only way to make tilapia edible is to cover it in something very hot and spicy...can't stand the fish. Don't like freshwater fish in general, but I find Tilapia actually has a kind of bitter taste...good texture though. And yes, tilapia is a freshwater fish...the stuff sold live in all the Asian markets is in freshwater. However, it also lives in brackish water and can be acclimated to salt water..the frozen tilapia fillet's imported from China have been "matured" in salt water. I tried it once...does taste better than regular tilapia...but not worth buying again.

                    3. I was going to eat at one of Manhattan's top restaurants today. But then I thought, I'd really rather be eating that whole fish. So off to Flushing I went. This time to Little Pepper, where the waitresses have been telling me for months to eat the whole fish, and this time I did. A few minutes later, out came a fish, and it looked so good, and then it went to another table! "I want it, give it to me!" I cried in Chinese. This got everyone laughing. And 15 minutes later mine came, and it was just as good.

                      I ordered the fish in hot bean paste (which is not the same as the fish with bean curd, I've seen that earlier this week when another table ordered it, and it looks great too) The fish was indeed slathered with a thick paste that managed to be sweet, salty, sour, peppery, and other things too (I'd say they used nuoc mam except they don't use this in Sichuan, as far as I know) It was a good Christmas fish since it was also covered with minced red and green chilis and surrounded by a bright red lake of oil mixed with that paste.

                      It was wonderful. If I had to choose, I'd probably prefer the Chengdu sauce to the bean paste. But Little Pepper uses a better, and bigger fish than Spicy & Tasty, for the same price.

                      Little Pepper
                      133-43 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY 11354

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Brian S

                        In 1992, the NY Times printed an article about the city of Taipei. It said this:

                        "Taipei has lots of outstanding little family Sichuan restaurants, holes in the wall that serve delicious, clean food. Most don't have English menus, but you need only point to anything that looks good that somebody else has ordered, and you can eat your fill for less than $10 a person"

                        Except for the phrase "hole in the wall", this could have been written about Little Pepper! Does anyone know if the owners and customers at Little Pepper come from Taipei? I've often thought they might.

                        1. re: Brian S

                          Last week, I had an amazing meal at Szechwan Gourmet in Flushing (which really does not get enough props on this board). After already plowing through a half dozen exemplary dishes, the Whole Braised Fish with Bean Curd finally arrived. It was an absolutely breathtaking sight. This dish is listed for $17 on the menu, but we'd been give the option of paying an extra $4 to have a still alive bass from their tanks. The one we got was fat and easily 1.5 feet long. The huge chunks of flesh were sweet and impossibly delicate. It was absolutely one of the best fish dishes I've had (It blew away the whole fish I've had at Little Pepper). While the sauce looked aggressive and full of garlic,Sichuan pepper and soft tofu, it was actually very balanced and comforting. It was almost like what a perfect dessert should be in concept, trying together everything that preceeded it into a little symphony in the head..

                        2. I braved the blizzard -- which fortunately wasn't much of a blizzard, though I could see snow-capped roofs as the #7 Express zoomed toward Flushing -- to try the whole fish with bean curd ($17) at Little Pepper. After a 20 minute wait, a guy from the kitchen marched in, a proud grin on his face, carrying a huge platter. He deserved to feel proud; it was sensational. Next to a lovely whole fish was a mound of pillowy, Junket-like dofu, and around it all a fiery-red lake of chili oil. Much of the fish was covered with finely minced peanuts, dried red chilis, celery, many other things; the rest was coated with a green paste, a Chinese chimichurri, with lots of other minced things. So many flavors, all harmoniously singing their parts in the great chorus that was this stellar dish.

                          A few weeks ago I tried fish pieces in dofu at Spicy & Tasty, which was very good but not nearly as good as this. (Spicy & Tasty doesn't have the whole fish in dofu though maybe they will do it on request) So the best thing to order at Spicy & Tasty is the Chengdu fish described in my original post, and the best thing at Little Pepper is the fish I ate tonight.

                          Next to me at Little Pepper tonight was a party of twelve teenagers crowded around a bubbling hotpot. Usually I'm jealous of the hotpot tables. Tonight I wasn't. After all, it's just boiled meat plus a broth with everyone's germs in it. Not, like my fish, a work of art.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Brian S

                            im not sure if its as good as xiao la jiao or chengdu tian fu, but i did have the shui zhu yu pian (water cooked fish) at spicy & tasty two weeks ago and it was awesome, they used halibut and it wasnt too oily, the mix of hot oil, cilantro and other condiments was really outstanding (as a comparison i had the same dish at wu liang ye a week later and it was really mediocre)

                            1. re: Lau

                              Yeah, the water cooked fish (or beef) is one of my favorite dishes at all three places. I didn't write about it here since it's not a whole fish. Spicy & Tasty does it as well as anywhere. First time I ever had this dish in Spicy & Tasty it was SO spicy I was sick for three days, but it was so good that the next time I had three days free, I went there and had it. But they never made it that spicy again.

                              1. re: Brian S

                                yeah i just wrote about cuz we were talking about fish...btw try the cold cucumber appetizer (xiang kou huang gua) next time you're there, its a really nice refreshing addition to the meal and they make it very tasty at spicy & tasty

                                this whole fish dish sounds great too!

                            2. re: Brian S

                              Spicy and Tasty has it, and it's wonderful. It was ordered by a chinese speaking person at our table, so maybe it was not on the menu as you say. The version I had didn't have the green paste you described, but the sauce was very much like mapo dofu sauce, with fermented beans...it was wonderful, but I am now anxious to try Little Pepper's version, which sounds more complex.