Melanie must have felt pity for me and my recent frustration with finding spicy food, because when I suggested we have lunch she recommeded Sam Lok. Never having had a Sichuan peppercorns, or any real Sichuan food for that matter, I eagerly agreed.
The restaurant is very bright, well lit, clean, and welcoming. I remarked that it is a place I would have walked into years ago, even when I was quite timid about exploring new restaurants and cuisines. It's not a hole in the wall or a place that has a separate Chinese menu that you need to ask for. Our waitress was friendly and helpful, though she spoke limited English with a thick accent so Melanie had to resort to Chinese to be understood. I did learn one of the most important words to know in any language: "mala" (spicy). The single menu is written in Chinese and English, includes the Sichuan specialties and other dishes, and even implores diners to "be adventurous and sample their fine work." There was a small list of specials that were not translated; our waitress recommended one of the dishes from the list.
Okay, the food. Melanie, please correct me if I've got any of the ingredients wrong. We had...
COUPLE'S DELIGHT ($6)
Cold, thin slices of cured beef and pork stomach topped with chili oil, peanuts, herbs, and a chopped mixture of peppercorns and chiles. All elements were very good, and the dish had a wide range of flavors and textures. My favorite dish of the day.
SLICED PORK STOMACH WITH CHILI OIL ($5.50)
This is the title from the take-out menu, though the one at the restaurant has a more vague description. Cold slices of cured bacon are mixed with a vinegary, garlicy, spicy sauce and mixed with chopped yellow onions. Also very good, my second favorite dish.
SPICY CUCUMBER SALAD ($3.80)
Small slices of cucumber with vinegar, oil, chopped dried chile pods, and a big dose of whole Sichuan peppercorns. This was the spiciest dish of the meal, and really let me get to know the pure taste and sensation of the peppercorns (I was eating them several at a time on their own). The heat is very much a numbing and not a burning sensation. It also doesn't linger nearly as long as a chile, though it's not as ephemeral as the sensation from wasabi. They also have a nice peppery, almost citrusy flavor.
NOODLES IN SPICY SICHUAN SAUCE ($5.50)
Also known as dan dan noodles, a mixture of wheat noodles, ground pork, and a peanut based sauce. These were not so good: noodles were mushy and the sauce overly creamy and unctuous. Melanie disliked these on her previous visit for the same reasons, so I think it's safe to say they should be avoided.
CHILE FISH WITH BEAN CURD ($10)
This was the item off the specials menu, I don't know what the proper title; the waitress recommended it to us over the boiled beef. A huge bowl of fresh bean curd is accompanied by chunks of catfish in a bright red chile oil based sauce. The flavors were fairly simple, dominated by oil, garlic, and salt. Also not recommended.
If you're thinking, "that sounds like a lot of food for two people," you're right. The good news is that I had the chance to see how well each dish would hold up as leftovers. The noodles and fish did not work at all. The cucumbers became a little soft, discolored, and slimy, but tasted okay (it was fun to just eat more peppercorns). The couple's delight and sliced bacon held up quite well, though the herbs were not nearly as vibrant.
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