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Do any Sichuan restaurants use whole, good-quality peppercorns here?

Hi! I'm a long-time Chow lurker who just moved to the Seattle area from Dallas.

My favorite Sichuan restaurants in Texas—Sichuanese Cuisine in Plano (owned by the same people who run the ID and Redmond locations here) and Mala Sichuan Bistro in Houston—used whole, high-quality peppercorns. Their mala dishes were loaded with large, seedless, explosively glorious huajiao that would leave me salivating.

Fast-forward to today, and I'm very disappointed in the Sichuan food around here. For some reason, Seattle restaurants seem to be extremely stingy with the huajiao: most of the time I can't even tell it's there, and when I (barely) can, it's powdered rather than whole. I have so far been to:

* Spiced (Bellevue),
* Shu Yi (Bellevue),
* Little Garden (Bellevue),
* Bamboo Garden (Bellevue),
* Sichuanese Cuisine (Redmond),
* Sichuanese Cuisine (ID), and
* Seven Stars Pepper (ID).

Out of all the above, I've only encountered whole huajiao at Shu Yi, and the peppercorns were tiny, full of seeds, and extremely weak.

I've found old posts that referenced whole peppercorns being used at a couple of the restaurants on my list, but I can attest that they no longer do—not on any of my visits, anyway.

Does anybody know of a Sichuan restaurant in the Seattle area that uses whole peppercorns, high-quality ones, and is not stingy as hell with them?

Thank you guys in advance! I look forward to being part of the community.

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  1. Tacoma Szechuan does the last time I was there. It is in south Tacoma near the border with Lakewood.

    1. * Sichuanese Cuisine (Redmond)

      I used to work right by there, and every time I ordered the chili fried chicken there were a handful of whole salty blooming spicy peppercorns among the fried onions and chicken. I loved picking them out and chomping on them whole!

      1. @BallardFoodie: I'll give it a try sometime, though Yelp shows lots of bell peppers and broccoli in dishes that shouldn't have them. How authentic would you say this place is?

        @Brunhilde: How long ago was that? I've been there several times and had pretty much all the obligatory mala dishes, and there have been no whole peppercorns in anything I got. I can taste it (in powdered form) in some dishes, but there's absolutely no numbing going on. Like you, I also love picking out the peppercorns.

        Thanks, guys. Next, I'll be trying Spicy Talk Bistro (Redmond) and Szechuan First (Renton).

        6 Replies
        1. re: basteagow

          I don't think that Spicy Talk and Szechuan First will be any better.

          There are 2 other places up in Lynnwood - Taste of Szechwan and Szechwan Garden that might be worth exploring. Haven't been to both in quite some time, though.

          Also, keep in mind that many of these restaurants on your list like to exercise food censoring for non-Chinese diners. That may be a reason why your peppercorns do not readily present themselves (assuming your avatar matches your real life appearance).

          1. re: HungWeiLo

            Yes, I'm well aware of that unfortunate phenomenon. I do what I can, without being pretentious, to let severs know I'm not one of "those people." I only order authentic dishes (and often get weird looks, like when I got mung bean jelly the other day), turn down forks, ask for bowls, request extra mala, etc.

            I sometimes peek at the server's notepad to make sure they're not writing "watered down for white person" next to my order, and I look at Chinese patrons' dishes to make sure they're prepared the same way.

            Even at Spiced, where the ability to individually customize ma and la levels is displayed prominently on the menu, asking for maximum everything still does not result in whole peppercorns appearing—merely a ton of powder being used.

            I'll try the Lynnwood restaurants you suggested. Thank you!

          2. re: basteagow

            About 1 1/2 years, I guess. I always called the order in and picked up for lunch. Oddly, the one time we ate in for dinner it was not very spicy. Maybe they adjust for the Microsoft lunch crowd?

            1. re: Brunhilde

              Perhaps. Another thing I've noticed Sichuan restaurants here being lazy about is chili peppers: most of them toss them in whole and rely on added-in chili flakes for heat instead of taking the time to chop the chilies. Little Garden is good about this: there's usually a lady sitting in front of a huge tub of chilies in the dining room, cutting away with a pair of scissors. Sadly, their food is otherwise nothing to write home about.

              1. re: Brunhilde

                Spicy Talk's chef is now at Uway Malatang (though I think he's still involved at ST?)

              2. re: basteagow

                Its been about two years (come to think of it, that's about when kid #2 was born). I see the yelp reviews seem to suggest a downhill slide recently. If so, its too bad.

              3. Interesting discussion. As I write this I'm sitting here eating some Huang Feu Hong Spicy Peanuts (highly recommended, if you haven't had them), chock full of whole peppercorns that are spilling across my paperwork. Anyway.

                I'm not sure I buy the argument that they are just catering to white Seattlites by skimping on the peppercorns. I go to Szechuan regularly with a Chinese friend and the food is no different when I go with her. I've had her ask the waitresses for extra ma la but nothing comes of it. Once in a while I'll get something that has good peppercorn coverage but it's really random. Many of those spots (including Bamboo Garden, where I'm a regular) cater to a Chinese crowd, but I wonder if it's really a spice-loving Chinese crowd (beyond what you'd typically get at Szechuan, anyway). My friend doesn't love her food too spicy. So I wonder if in general, the clientele, Chinese and white, of these places is perceived to be not as tolerant of numbness/heat as the customers in a Houston restaurant would be. And so these restaurants think they can cheap out on the peppercorns because none of us will mind.

                But I've eaten a lot of Szechuan in NYC and the Bay Area and it hasn't been different. In fact I've generally been disappointed when eating at legendary places like Spicy and Tasty in Flushing because I thought it would be SO much better than what we get here. It was good but not amazing. And not discernibly more full of peppercorns (and in general, I always want more peppercorns). But when traveling, maybe being a non-regular and a blonde does come in to play.

                8 Replies
                1. re: christy319

                  Those peanuts look awesome. I haven't had them, but I now surely will!

                  When you say you "go to Szechuan regularly," are you referring to the name of a specific restaurant (e.g. Szechuan Chef in Bellevue or Szechuan First in Renton)?

                  I agree that the issue is likely a regional one rather than a matter of racial profiling. Another example would be the fact that, at all of the Sichuan restaurants I've been to in Texas, you're served water by default and tea is extra. Here, they all serve tea by default and water is optional. I'm not complaining, but I don't get it at all.

                  1. re: basteagow

                    Yeah, come to think of it, no Szechwan place up here really strikes me as particularly spicy. And I did not grow up with spicy food. It's probably a regional thing.

                    When I talk about the "racial profiling", I should elaborate that the same standards also apply to Chinese people as well. The waitresses judge you by your accent to make an educated guess as to how spicy you're likely to enjoy your food (based on what Chinese sub-group they think you probably belong to). Shoot, I've had good friends who still assume we like less-spicy less-oily stuff for me and my wife just because "hey, you southern Chinese can't handle what we northerners eat, so let's just take it a little easy on ya".

                    1. re: HungWeiLo

                      Good point. The other day I was at Little Garden and ordered my chongqing chicken "five stars," and it was hot enough that you could tell just by looking at it. I'm used to getting surprised looks of approval by Chinese patrons, but this time they thought it looked too spicy—a couple of them even commented on it. And it was indeed very la, but not at all ma. :(

                      1. re: basteagow

                        I like the cilantro chicken at Little Garden. That dish has more peppercorns than chicken and the flavor is great.

                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                          I just had that dish there last week and there were NO peppercorns! How would I ask them to make it like they did yours?

                    2. re: basteagow

                      Basteagow, we're regulars at Bamboo Garden and visit 7 Stars and a few other places occasionally. Haha, there's no "Szechuan Regularly" restaurant...

                      1. re: christy319

                        I never thought "regularly" was part of the name, hence the lack of capitalization in my reference. ;) I was just wondering if you were referring to the name of a particular restaurant and had omitted a second word, or the full name altogether.

                    3. re: christy319

                      There is much better Sichuan in Flushing and Manhattan than Spicy and Tasty!

                      This popular Chinese snack Huang Feihong (or Fragrant Crispy Peppers if you will) can also be used in a stir-fry dish, as found in a Qingdao restaurant in Flushing several years ago. Or eaten alone at your desk anytime.

                      黃飛鴻 Huáng Fēi Hóng or (黄飞鸿) is a Chinese folk hero.

                      http://www.shinho.com.cn/product_h.asp

                      Huang Feihong:
                      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wong_Fei...

                    4. Update:

                      * Returned to Sichuanese Cuisine (Redmond) with a Chinese companion and had her place our order. No peppercorns.

                      * Szechuan First (Kent): Asked for extra mala; server acknowledged. Very hot, yet no peppercorns.

                      So I went to 99 Ranch Market for the Huang Fei Hong peanuts that @christy319 recommended, and I'm eating them as we speak. My tongue is numb and I'm in heaven.

                      Why do I have to resort to a prepackaged snack for my huajiao fix?!

                      18 Replies
                      1. re: basteagow

                        Peppercorns aside, how would you rate Szechuan First?

                        1. re: Gizmo56

                          The food is otherwise great and I'd rate it above several of the other restaurants I listed. I'd already eaten at Szechuan First while visiting Seattle on multiple occasions before I moved here, but I wasn't worried about peppercorns back then.

                          1. re: Brunhilde

                            Chongqing lazi ji, mala ji, xiangla ji, lazi ji, mapo tofu, shui zhu nuirou, among others. At least one of these should have peppercorns, shouldn't it?

                            1. re: basteagow

                              Yes, they should. You may have to convince them you will be a regular and that they should not be afraid in holding back by stopping in again and again, until they get it right.

                              Or perhaps the owners and/or chef are not from Sichuan at all...

                              1. re: scoopG

                                Maybe scoopG is on to something. This was in a blog post on peppercorns by Fuschia Dunlop:

                                "Incidentally, I reckon the main reason for the scarcity of decent hua jiao in Chinese supermarkets is that they are mainly run by the Cantonese, who have little taste for the numbing sensation that the Sichuanese adore. Outside Sichuan, and Sichuanese restaurants abroad, Sichuan pepper is mainly used in spice mixtures, and for its medicinal qualities, so a lack of ma zinginess is not really missed."

                                http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/the-true...

                                It couid be that the cooks up here aren't from Sichuan and just don't see the need for it.

                                1. re: christy319

                                  @christy319: Thank you; this would explain a lot.

                                  I also have an issue with the quality of huajiao available in stores: small, bland, and full of seeds and twigs. When I cook, I end up tossing 40% of the peppercorns because I don't want to take the time to seed the "bad" ones. I almost want to go back to Plano and ask the owner of Sichuanese Cuisine where he gets his—I wouldn't be surprised if they smuggled them in. They were also way more potent than anything I've bought from a store, indicating that they may not have been sterilized as required by the USDA.

                                  1. re: basteagow

                                    Basteagow,

                                    Have you tried the Szechuan peppercorns at either World Spice or Penzy's? I bought a jar at World Spice about a year ago, and found it to be both well sorted and potent, with the caveat that I'm not an aficionado, so probably have lower resolution standards.

                                    1. re: Booklegger451

                                      @Booklegger451: I haven't. My experience has so far been limited to 99 Ranch Market, Asia Food Center and Uwajimaya here, and a few others back in Dallas. I did notice a fancy spice brand, India Tree, at Uwajimaya which clearly catered to white people and had Sichuan peppercorns at $6/bag (insane) which didn't look any better. I think this is why I haven't bothered with non-Asian-specific stores, but I'll give your suggestions a try. Thank you!

                                      1. re: basteagow

                                        World Spice, and to an only slightly lesser extent, Penzy's, are very reputable spicers. World Spice works mostly from bulk, so if you want to try a very small amount of their product for quality, they can probably accommodate you.

                                2. re: scoopG

                                  Little Garden and Spicy Talk are run by Cantonese.

                                  But having actually eaten in both restaurants and homes in Sichuan and Yunnan, I really don't think the spice levels are off by THAT much. Or maybe I'm too numb to notice these days...but I don't think the spice level of Cantonese-run places like Little Garden are that different than, say, the other non-Cantonese-run places.

                                  1. re: HungWeiLo

                                    Interesting. Do you think the peppercorn levels specifically are pretty close? While I, like the OP, find myself wanting more peppercorn flavor, I have no idea if that's indeed what I'd get in Sichuan.

                                    1. re: christy319

                                      They do indeed have more peppercorns in it. But for me, they add a bit of the sourness/stinginess than just plain hot which is the more interesting aspect for me anyway.

                                      Though I suspect I just don't have that sensitive of a palate anymore.

                                    2. re: HungWeiLo

                                      HWL:

                                      Sort of a tangent, but would you (or others) mind listing off some of the best (or daresay "must-try") dishes at Little Garden? I have been thre once and it was hit-or-miss from the section designated Hunan specialties. The dinner menu is so long and many names are sort of generic. http://bit.ly/1mdvDR8

                                      Thanks so much.

                                      1. re: equinoise

                                        @equinoise: The good thing about Little Garden's PDF menu is that it's actual selectable text. I recommend copying and pasting the Chinese names of the dishes in which you're interested into Google Images.

                                        1. re: basteagow

                                          Thanks.

                                          And your OP reminded me of a separate discussion on this topic circa 2010, in which I provided photo evidence of whole 'corns in a dish of 2x cooked frog from Bamboo Garden. It's truly puzzling how much variance there seems to be.
                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7082...

                                        2. re: equinoise

                                          Not necessarily the best items there, but some of what I've tried: (I haven't yet fully explored the Hunan section as much as the other stuff)

                                          #7 - plain thick noodles stir-fried peasant-style w/ choice of meat
                                          #26 - wontons w/ spicy broth slapped on it
                                          #35 - Sichuan staple of sliced beef and offal in spicy broth
                                          #36 - same as #35 but with sliced pig ears
                                          The soups are worth trying at least once.
                                          #66
                                          #96
                                          #113
                                          #114 - I like this one, though peppercorn load may vary; I'll have to try #115 next time
                                          #117 - a bit too KFC, but still pretty tasty
                                          #125 - swimming fire fish - but with beef
                                          #152 - irrational love for eggplant
                                          #165 w/ garlic - irrational love for pea vines
                                          #185 - not as good as the handmade tofu at Szechwan99, but the flavor's there
                                          #187 - swimming fire fish

                                          Many of these items use identical/repeated descriptors, altered only by the meat.

                                          The frustrating part about eating there is the wait as they seem to do every dish in the kitchen serially. I almost always get takeout now.

                                          1. re: HungWeiLo

                                            Thanks very much. I need to get back to Little Garden soon. Every time we head east for Chinese food, my family clamors for DTF, Facing East or Bamboo Garden, so it's hard to make it there.