1/2 Sometimes thwarted plans don’t bother me. Saturday night I had intended to try Flushing’s Hot Pot City. All you can dunk hot pot with unlimited beer? A place after my own heart. But unfortunately it was no more, literally, a dry erase board at the bottom of the staircase read “no more hotpot.” And they hadn’t simply run out of soup--the second-floor space had morphed into a foodless bar.
Ah well, that left me with two nearby favorites: A Fan Ti or Little Pepper. When in doubt it’s always Sichuan. Plus, last time I attempted Little Pepper it was full and I had to settle for Spicy & Tasty (which isn’t really settling).
I’ve been enough times now that I was determined to try new things. However, the cumin lamb was a necessary repeat. I’m still not sure why it’s served in foil, the char-edged meat and onions are clearly the mark of high heat sautéing. Sometimes pools of orange oil are alarming, but not so with Sichuan food. You need that oil.
Also sitting in a wonderful pool of spicy oil was the largest serving of dan dan noodles I’ve ever seen. Normally, these pork-dotted coils come in a small vessel similar in size to a single rice serving. It’s hard to tell scale from the photo but this was practically a salad bowl, and I’m pretty sure they cost less than $5.
I don’t recall portions being so huge in the past. We only ate about a third of each of our dishes and had so much left over that the to-go containers were bulging. But I order with future meals in mind. I noticed the other twosome sitting near us only ordered one braised dish and a vegetable. That’s probably more normal.
I tried branching out and asked for the ox stomach in mashed garlic. That didn’t sound terribly appetizing but I figured it was just tripe, and I wanted to see what a cold appetizer would be like with mashed garlic rather than the usual chile oil. Sadly, it was a no go. Maybe next time. The one thing I noticed was that the tingly peppercorn effect was very muted in all of the dishes that normally would showcase it (these tendons, the noodles and lamb). Maybe it was just an old batch of Sichuan peppercorns—I have the same problem at home.
Cauliflower with smoked pork was one of two pale-on-pale white dishes. I was imagining a crispy, roasted vegetable, which is kind of silly because Chinese do not oven roast (hmm…and this amusing thread appeared right after I wrote this). No, this was a steamed, soupy dish with most of the flavor coming from the very smoky meat. It seemed kind of like an excuse to nibble fatty meat under the guise of eating your vegetables.
Venturing into the braised section of the menu was new for me. I wasn’t ready for organs, so fish it was. Enough fish for six people. This was also a chile oil-free presentation. The flavor was delicate with a very mild flaky fish (I did not ask what kind). The secret to livening things up is to get a bit of the salty-hot pickled chiles in each mouthful. It’s the difference between a staid and tongue-searing. (9/13/08)
I’m torn on eateries with ampersands. Hot & Crusty has always sounded grotesque (and their remedial website doesn’t do much to change my mind) but Spicy & Tasty kind of tells it like it is so no worries. After my initial surprise at this Flushing Sichuan restaurant getting the New York Times main review treatment (they’d already had an Under $25 write up a few years back) last Wednesday, I became fixated on getting Sichuan food, specifically beef tendon in chile oil, immediately.
Ultimately, I would have to wait until the weekend for a Flushing excursion but I was going crazy at work. I was finally able to put Menu Pages’s Find-a-Food feature to work (it normally annoys me because you have to specify a neighborhood first instead of being able to search across the board). W. 40s + beef tendon=Wu Liang Ye, a pretty reputable place that was only a block from my office. I was happy to have a rendition readily available to me but I wasn’t keen on midtown prices. As it turned out, the speculation became moot since soon after my find I became explosively ill and had to leave work.
A day and half later I was back and coughed up the $10.80 with tax (more than twice my lunch allowance) for my damn beef tendon, but it had to be done. Instead of being satisfied, I just wanted more Sichuan food so Saturday I headed to Little Pepper. I’m really not sure how influential a New York Times review is on drawing crowds to the outer boroughs but I wasn’t taking any chances on Spicy & Tasty. If I’m correct, Little Pepper is in Spicy & Tasty’s old spot so it all makes sense in a way.
This time we sat in the subterranean dining room like I think you’re supposed to. We were given a little dishes of peanuts and pickled vegetables, which we didn’t receive last time. Snacks alone are reason enough to sit downstairs. The weirdest thing was that right after we were seated, the same mismatched Chinese family with the angry order barking Archie Bunker/corrupt union boss that we saw last time came in. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the same strange family or if this was a Flushing archetype, but then he started sweating wildly and spent the meal constantly wiping his head and neck with napkins so I knew it was our guy. Maybe they’re there every Saturday. They didn’t appear to pay for their meal so obviously there’s more to this story. His wife kept staring at me and I was like “You’re married to a freak. Why on earth are you giving me the eye?”
We got the cumin lamb like last time, then tried the dan dan noodles (except they don’t call them dan dan noodles) with beef, shredded eggplant with peppers (which the waitress said was better than the eggplant in garlic sauce listed above this item) and enhanced pork. How could you ignore pork that’s been enhanced? I’m not quite sure what that means, if it’s a too literal translation or what, but I think they also serve it at Spicy & Tasty. Here, it’s salty slices of pork belly laced with thin strips of hot green chiles.
I guess you could say that Sichuan food tends to be fatty and oily—maybe that’s why I like it so much. Most of the dishes we’ve had are either glossy or flat out drenched with fiery orange chile oil. I imagine that you’re supposed to mix small spoonfuls of meat or vegetables with large quantities of rice for balance. And the servings are so generous at Little Pepper that you can easily squeeze multiple meals out of them. It’s too bad that there isn’t any Chinese food like this in upper Brooklyn. (12/2/06)
I don’t know if it’s because of this horrible head cold and ear ache I’ve had for nearly a week or what, but I’ve been on a Sichuan rampage. Friday, all I could think about was how I desperately needed something meaty, oily, numbing and hot. Unfortunately, I was so beat up that night that I settled for eggplant and sausage pizza from Nino’s up the street.
Saturday, I was heading to Queens for Czech Oktoberfest at the Bohemian Beer Garden, so I figured a Flushing detour wouldn’t be too detrimental (except that when we arrived sober at 8pm there was a lot of catching up to compete with those who’d been there since the 1pm opening). I’ve been to Spicy & Tasty so I thought I’d give nearby Little Pepper a try.
I’d read that Little Pepper was a little rougher around the edges than Spicy & Tasty (which I don’t recall being exactly frou frou) so I wasn’t surprised to walk into a bare bones dining area with a handful of sparse tables. There was one other group, a Chinese family with a gruff tubby white guy, probably someone’s husband or boyfriend, who was sweating profusely and constantly napkin-ing his forehead. I wasn’t sure if he had a medical condition or if the spice was really that spicy.
There was a bit of confusion because we only had one place setting, no menus and English wasn’t spoken. The nice young guy eventually did bring menus and then stood inches from the table staring at us like they do in Thailand. I really could stand to learn the phrase, “could you please give us a few minutes?” in various languages. Under pressure, we quickly picked out a few items: cold Sichuan noodles, lamb with chile and cumin, pork with bamboo shoots and a lotus root something or other. If it were solely up to me I would’ve ordered beef tendon or jellyfish instead of the noodle appetizer.
The lamb, which was semi-strangely served in aluminum foil (was it baked?), came first. They weren’t lying about the cumin. The distinctive aroma was like an earthy bowl of chilli. I’m all for Sichuan lamb at the next Super Bowl party. The pork and lotus root dishes both looked simple and clear-sauced, they were sprinkled with chopped dried chiles rather than drenched in chile oil (which the noodles were all about—after a few bites you start to feel fire creeping up your jaw into your ears). They were hotter than they appeared, and the lotus root had little zingy peppercorns hiding in the swiss cheese-like holes.
I forget which is ma and which is la, though I think the chile hot is la and the mouth numbing is ma. I chomped down on one particularly volitile husk and the whole left side of my mou th filled with a paralyzing almost-fruity tingle like when I used to stick a vitamin C tablet inside my cheek to see how long I could tolerate the painful tanginess on the school bus every morning. It’s not the kind of sensation one normally associates with pleasant dining experience but the flavor of the food isn’t oblierated and there’s something kind of fun about interactive spices. I felt completely invigorated and revved up about Sichuan food all weekend. It's all I want to cook right now.
Eventually, we were the only diners in the room but the cook was constantly busy. We were baffled who he was making food for. James speculated that there was another dining room in back but that didn’t make sense. It was mysterious…until, we left and realized that the restaurant proper was downstairs. I guess the ground level little room we’d been sitting in was for take out and no one ever said anything to alert us of our faux pas. That would explain the peculiar service and lack of serving spoons, drinking water and a bathroom. Or not, it could be loosey goosey all the time for all I know. Still, it made me feel like a retard in my own country.
I’m determined to not be a culinary retard in my home nation or anywhere else. I don’t have the time that I used to for leisurely pouring over cookbooks but made a point of dusting off my barely read Land of Plenty that I probably bought a year ago and have only cooked from once. There hasn’t been tons written in English on Sichuan cuisine and this example is pretty damn authoritative. How do you get to be a Fucshia Dunlop, anyway? She also has an article on Taiwanese food in this month’s Gourmet and a piece on Hunan tofu in the last Saveur, there’s no escape.
I’m sure I’ve speculated on this before because it’s a concept that’s untangible yet incredibly attractive to me. There’s a long tradtion of fixated non-natives making a name on their foreign culinary expertise. I suppose a biggie would be what Julia Child did for French cooking (Elizabeth David also had a bit of that beat in Britain) but there are numerous others like Diana Kennedy with Mexican food, David Thompson with Thai and apparently, James Oseland with Indonesian, as was posited in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. I decided last night that I’m going to become a food ambassador, seriously. I’m just not saying which specific cuisine yet or when it will happen, I mean, you don’t become a know-it-all overnight.
It seems like in the old days, women accomplished this feat by marrying a gentleman stationed abroad for one reason or another and needed a hobby to fill their time. Now, it seems more tied to education, studying a field that takes you to a distant university. Me, I really have no in on my own, though I do live with with someone who could easily transfer to Asia through his job if he really wanted to. And last night I did my best to convince him that we should move to Singapore and for the first time he seemed open to the idea, which is step up from the blasé reaction I’ve received the ten or so other times I’ve tried planting the let’s move to Asia seed. Give me another half-decade and I might eventually get my way. (10/2/06)
Little Pepper * 133-43 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing, Queens