I have over the last few months had some cravings for some super spicy, really flavorful food. My wife has extremely sensitive taste buds (most likely she has a lot more than me) so she doesn't go for spicy food. I save my Sichuan outings for a group of friends that occasionally get together. Sometimes I worry that I don't have very many taste buds at all (so why would anyone on this board trust me- hee), however I do like very savory, spicy food. Here are some of the things we have had at various places, we haven't yet worked up the "Chow-ness" to go for some off the beaten path stuff, but a lot of the flavors of Sichuan food can be experienced on dishes that aren't too exotic. All these trips were aided by the boards, but the South Legend and Zone 88 were in response to direct requests, and I love you guys so much for the great feedback and quick responses.
First, a discussion of Sichuan peppercorn- this slightly citrusy, musty flavored not-a-real-peppercorn spice also can impart a numbing, tingling sensation.
This effect, somewhat similar to local anesthetic, doesn't not seem linked to how strongly a dish tastes of the peppercorns. The tingly stuff I think can go off or be variable. That said, without getting a strong buzz from a super fresh batch, there still seems to be antagonism of capsaicin spiciness in many Sichuan dishes. Meaning you can see the dish just swimming in chili oil and it just won't seem spicy at all. As people have mentioned on the boards, it can be bought under the English 'Red Prickly Ash" name. Only the husks of a small round black seed should be used (some bags in the store are separated husks and some have both).
With the above in mind, we started our tour of Sichuan places:
134 Castro St
Mountain View, CA 94041
Hangen in Mountain View was a stand-in for going all the way to someplace favored on these boards because it was too late to get anywhere. There were only two of us this night so we just got a couple of dishes and an appetizer.
Wontons in Chili Oil- no strong sichuan pepper taste, but very nice dish, smooth slipper wontons with a small amount of meat filling, with some yummy greens bathed in a chili oil, and at Hangen, topped with a mound of chili paste (kind of like sambal olek) to me. I felt I could detect the influence of Sichuan peppercorn because the chili paste should have had some effect and it was definitely dulled. Totally passable dish.
Salt and Pepper Fish- Fine fried pieces of fish with a slightly too salt seasoning and sprinkling of savory sauteed onion and jalapeno or serrano. Standard "salt and pepper" dish, but would have been much better if it were "Chongqing-style" (see below).
Hangen Chicken- A dish I have not had before and what I believe is called "Spicy Basil Chicken" at Zone 88. This was actually pretty good- it was just stir fried white meat chicken slices in a very light sauce with a ton of garlic, asian basil and some hot green peppers. Seemed like the Chinese version of Thai gai gaprow, but saltier than a Thai dish. The basil and sauteed garlic were really abundant so the dish was very flavorful and was nicely spicy.
1720 N. Milpitas Blvd
Milpitas, CA 95035
There were three of us for this trip, so we were able to order more.
Sichuan Pickled Vegetables
A perfect appetizer, just super crunchy mixed pickled vegetables in a chili oil. I am salivating right now- very simple, and a great start. Although be warned, your food comes so fast at South Legend, you will almost instantly be faced with your entire order.
[Pic of veggies with Pork dish and Beef Jerky in background
Pieces of light, white-fleshed fish, battered and fried in what must have been impossibly hot oil because did not seem greasy at all, served with a huge mound of dried red peppers, some sort of magical dusting of seasoning (almost certain to include MSG) and some fresh, sauteed green hot peppers, and some onion I think (similar to "salt pepper" style but this version was so much better than any I have had before). We ordered this instead of the Chongqing Spicy Chicken, but next time we might get both, first, because the fish was perfect and second, to compare the chicken to Zone 88's below.
Shredded Pork with (I think) Fermented Fish Flavor
I never knew that this dish, which I looked askance at first time through the menu was the same as what many places call "Shredded Pork Sichuan Style" or also "Yu Hsiang Pork" or Pork w/ garlic sauce. Anyhow, it was this standard dish, albeit seemingly more flavorful with a pronounced non-sweet tang.
Sichuan Cold Noodles
One of my fave dishes, cold noodles with a variety of seasonings, usually sesame paste, vinegar, garlic, chili oil, soy sauce and sichuan peppercorn. Very refreshing, not a strong taste of sichuan peppercorn, but slightly tingly, and it felt like something was keeping them from being very spicy.
Sichuan Style Beef Jerky
The only dish at South Legend where the sichuan peppercorns were obvious, both numbing wise and taste wise. This dried beef was intensely flavored with sichuan peppercorns/spice paste. It was delicious. I will say that the numbing did not reach the very strong power of chloraseptic sore throat spray (a good thing, see below in Zone 88 report).
Dry fried green beans
Standard dish, yummy, with boatloads of MSG. Better at Zone 88.
A quite extensive menu and lighting fast- more dishes thought of as standards on the menu here than at Zone 88 below. Zone 88 has a greater preponderance of food that seemed exotic to my gringo eyes, and an overall smaller menu. Was disappointed that the red oil wontons were only on the "Chengdu style" Dim Sum menu which is available weekends.
2428 San Bruno
San Francisco, CA 94134
We didn't do a great job in balancing our ordering here, and I was sad that I couldn't find sichuan pickled vegetables on the menu and they were out of sichuan beef jerkey appetizer so we couldn't compare. We added a fourth to our group of three above, so we ordered even more food. None of us are Chinese, but one of us taught English in China, so has some experience at least in reading the menu and he always orders some dishes in Chinese, hoping that we can get the full spiciness. Also, Zone 88 has a lot of pictures on their menu for most of the their specialties so you can kind of see what is what.
Chong Qing Spicy Chicken Wings
Similar dish as fish from South Legend, but unbelievably, even better. Small bite size pieces of chicken wing on the bone lightly battered and fried with a mound of dried peppers and some sauteed garlic and ginger, quite MSG-y, with visible sichuan peppercorns and a quick drizzle of some sort of lightly sweet sauce. The chicken was juicy and super hot when it was served and lightly sweet and very savory. A hall of fame style thing- Warriors/Mavs game 6 was on at the time (they have some nice flat screen color TVs in corners in a really nice atmosphere) and I had the impression I was eating what I would consider the perfect bar food. The sweetness of the dish is what makes this distinct from the Chongqing fish we had at South Legend, but I will directly compare the chicken version next time. Some of the peppercorns in this dish had flavor but did not strongly numb when bitten into, but one did to the extreme a la chloraseptic sore throat spray. It was strong enough that it was not enjoyable.
Dried fried green beans
Not as salty as South Legend's, but crunchier and fresher tasting. Just great.
Fried Spicy Squid
Very similar to Chong Qing style Chicken wings, no garlic and ginger or sweetish sauce, mostly just crunchy tentancles. Some non-dried hot green pepper as well. Very savory, MSG flavor.
Ma Po Tofu
My friend ordered this after ordering something else in chinese, and our really nice waitress asked "really spicy?" and he enthusiastically replied in the affirmative. Everyone thought the tofu was the right texture, and my friend said he thought it was a pretty good version, but he likes it to be swimming in sauce and this didn't have the abundance of sauce that he likes. I didn't think it was that spicy.
Sichuan cold noodles
The noodles seemed to lack the abundance of chili oil that was expected, however, the chili oil that was there was flavored with sichuan peppercorns in that you could taste the musty, citrusy notes clearly. No real sesame notes at all, I wonder if this was a different version than South Legend. South Legend's had the ingredients I am used to, but lacked the Sichuan Peppercorn flavor, while being spicer because of the chili oil. So I like them both.
Wontons in chili oil
Again, the sichuan peppercorn notes were obvious in the chili oil. I really love this dish, it is simple but has some good textures and the sauteed greens that come with it are a nice crunchy counterpoint to the smooth, slippery wontons. Slightly better than Hangen, but sadly less spicy.
Zone 88 also have some short paper menus in Chinese set under the glass on the tables that have I don't know what on them. My friend reads some Chinese, and these dumplings were from that menu. They were not Sichuan style and their subtlety was probably lost among all the strong, assertive food we were eating. They seemed to be pork and leek and I thought they were quite good (realize this "good" comes from a relatively naive dumpling palate).
I would eat at all three places again- I would say Zone 88 and South Legend are tied- I can probably get myself to try more items on the menu at South Legend, but Zone 88 is a nice, comfy space and is a little bit closer. Very friendly service, and a very clean, modern restaurant.