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Psychedelic Peppercorns

Try a spice at Sichuan Cuisine that's been banned in the States since 1968

Ignoring the insect interlude, we sample some tangy, cold Sichuan noodles and garlic pickles for starters. An entrée of double-cooked pork is actually made from thick pieces of bacon with scallions, onions and garlic, and it tastes spectacular. The "vegetable trio in garlic sauce" comes with big pieces of eggplant, string beans and baby bok choy served in a pungent brown sauce, and it's also stunning. But everybody's favorite is a whole fried fish in thick, spicy black bean sauce.

Since I'd already sampled the ma po tofu, which carries the three-pepper symbol on the menu designating extreme heat, I'd encouraged the tofu lover at the table to try the yuan-yang tofu, which has the two-pepper symbol, making it the second-spiciest tofu dish on the menu. Little did I know that yuan-yang tofu is actually a mix of white tofu cubes and a different sort of cube: a dark brown one that I recognize as congealed pork blood, a delicacy I've previously sampled at Fung's Kitchen.

I'm unsure how to proceed. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the tofu-eater grab a dark cube in her chopsticks. If I tell her it's pig's blood, there isn't much chance she'll even taste the stuff. And who knows -- maybe she'll like it, so I keep my mouth shut.

The ma po tofu (back) could cause unrest at 
your table. And the kung pao chicken might 
make you panic -- but in a good way.
Troy Fields
The ma po tofu (back) could cause unrest at your table. And the kung pao chicken might make you panic -- but in a good way.

Location Info

Map

Sichuan Cuisine

9114 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036-4604

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Kung pao chicken: $6.95
Ma po tofu: $5.95
Vegetable trio in garlic sauce: $5.95
Fish in black bean sauce: $12.95
Double-cooked pork: $6.95
Dan dan noodles: $1.95

9114 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-771-6868

After she pushes the bowl away, I ask her what she thinks of the dish. She assumes the dark cubes are some kind of aged or fermented tofu and says she doesn't like them. She isn't too happy when I tell her what she's been eating. Disgusted, she accuses me of making her eat pork blood for my own sick amusement.

I plead innocent. But she'd be even more disgusted if she knew that there was another cockroach attempting to enter her purse, which she's placed on the floor beside her chair. I'm trying to look her in the eye to deny her charges of deception, while surreptitiously dislodging the cockroach from her handbag with the toe of my sneaker.

Disgusted now myself, I rush the paying of the bill and wave off the waitress's offer to pack up the leftovers. There's a plastic bag on the floor that I used to bring in a four-pack of Heineken tallboys. I pick it up and discover yet another cockroach (or maybe it's the one from the handbag, I can't be sure). I squash the bug beneath my shoe, leaving it splattered on the floor beside our table.

So, what can I say about Sichuan Cuisine? Can I recommend a restaurant with a cockroach problem? I call Chirag Bhatt, division manager for Houston's Bureau of Consumer Health Services, for advice. He is philosophical. "Cockroaches are pretty common in Houston restaurants," he says. "Restaurants are supposed to take measures to eliminate them. But there is no such thing as 100 percent compliance." Still, make no mistake: When cockroaches come into contact with food, they can cause illness.

Cockroaches spend most of their time in dark cracks, Bhatt observes. So when you see them out in broad daylight, it means there's a lot of them. The question to ask about a restaurant with cockroaches is "Are they doing the best they can?" It appears to me that Sichuan Cuisine needs to do more.

I'll always have a fondness for Sichuan Cuisine as the first place I ever sampled Sichuan peppercorns, although now that they're legal, I'm sure they'll be turning up in Chinese restaurants all over town. And there's no denying that the cooking is wonderful, as long as you like orange grease.

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