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: