There it is, that familiar tingle. Your brow moistens and you feel a little lightheaded. But you aren't tripping—you're in a Chinese restaurant, getting buzzed off Sichuan peppercorns. These little flavor bombs aren't necessarily spicy, but they'll numb your mouth— lips, tongue and all. They have a sharp, citrus-y aftertaste, and when you take a sip of water, it feels almost fizzy going across your tongue.
The serious heat comes from the peppercorns' culinary partner, the chili pepper.
In cuisine from the Sichuan province of China, these peppercorns are almost always paired with chili peppers, usually dried red peppers.
This category of revered dishes is described as ma la—ma meaning “numb” and la meaning “spicy.” Some say the numbing effect helps dull the punch of the chili, but I think it heightens the full sensory experience. This kind of food seems to produce a sweat like no other.
At Spicy City, weekends especially, there's a constant crush of people waiting for a table. Once you score one, head to the back of the restaurant to the display case of cold appetizers; you can pick three for $5.50. They come piled onto one plate, whether it's seaweed salad, pig ear, soybeans with mustard greens or sesame-oil-dressed bean curd skin noodles. The smoked chicken is my favorite, infused with a savory smoke over raw rice, spices and other aromatics. The cool yet slightly spicy chicken is tasty and lean, made from a slender, more-flavorful free-range bird as opposed to its over-plumped supermarket kin.
The servers here are friendly and brisk and won't hesitate to tell you what to order or let you know that you've ordered too much. On a recent trip, the woman helping us was from Chongqing, a city that neighbors the Sichuan province and shares a similarly spicy cuisine. When I visited there, we tried the area's most famous dish, a hot pot with an inchthink layer of dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns floating atop a russetcolored, chili-soaked roiling vat of oil. I'm a total heat seeker, but this dish brought a pain that I couldn't handle; I'm glad for the tamer American spice threshold.
For that ma la flavor at Spicy City, get the Hot and Spicy Fish sliced with soft tofu from the “Featured Specials” section of the menu. This mix of creamy tofu slices and tender fish filets is coated in cornstarch and quickly blanched in oil before being submerged in a dried-chili-pepper and Sichuan-peppercoladen hot oil. The dish is pleasantly fiery, salty and delicious over a bowl of steamed white rice to temper the heat. They also serve my preferred spicy-food beverage (besides beer), a Beijing-style yogurt drink, a liquid version of Asian-style plain tart frozen yogurt.
For a fish dish sans spice, the steamed fish with bean curd is the opposite of its hot and spicy cousin. The fish filets and tofu sit in a fragrant soy-sauce broth; the only hot element is a few fresh chili peppers sprinkled on top.
Another regional specialty is fried lamb with cumin, an entry from Islamic Chinese cuisine in which thin slices of lamb are quickly wok-tossed with a heavy shower of red pepper flakes, chopped green onions, lots of powdered cumin and cilantro stems. I generally like this dish, but I've had better versions elsewhere. The Local Flavor Lamb is even spicier, sautéed with three colors of fresh sliced chili peppers and even more dried ones.
Be forewarned—this is not food for the delicate. The after-effects from the double-whammy of Sichuan peppercorns and chilies, combined with the richness of the food, make this restaurant an unwise choice for anyone doing anything post-meal that requires clear thinking or physical dexterity; the best thing to do after eating it is to nap.