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We had ordered like people on death row and eaten like those condemned — it was as if Chinese Sichuan Cuisine was our last meal on earth, and we were determined to enjoy every last bite. The waitresses tittered at the rear of the restaurant, apparently quite amused by our group: a table of nine, late in the evening, ordering nearly everything off the menu and devouring it all.
An important thing to note about Chinese Sichuan Cuisine is that — like quite a few restaurants in the area — the English spoken inside is very limited. The language barrier is such that repeated phone calls to the restaurant simply to find out when they close at night were met with confused-sounding Mandarin on the other end of the line and multiple hang-ups. I eventually wrangled Southbound Food radio host Jenny Wang and her mother into translating for me, with great success.
9896 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Onion pancake: $2.95
Snack cart combination: $6
Cumin lamb: $14.95
Sesame chicken: $8.95
Homestyle frog: $10.95
Hot and spicy shrimp: $10.95
Chicken and baby corn soup: $7.95
Stir-fried beef lunch special: $4.95
9896 Bellaire, 713-773-1670.
The good news, however, is that the menu is helpfully translated into English. The point-and-grunt technique is met with wide acceptance here, and basic requests like "water" and "tea" are mostly understood. An occasional use of the phrase xie-xie ("thank you" in Mandarin, pronounced "sheuh-sheuh") goes a long way here and brings huge smiles to the waitresses' faces.
When Robb Walsh reviewed this restaurant back in August 2009, it was still serving halal food, including one of his favorite dishes in Houston: cumin lamb. The changeover occurred a couple of months ago, although the restaurant is still under the same ownership. The owner and the two chefs are all from Sichuan province in southwestern China. Since the change from halal to purely Sichuan, there has been a significant de-emphasis on the Uyghur (western China, which has the highest concentration of Chinese Muslims) cuisine served, but the cumin lamb has remained blissfully intact.
That lamb was passed around our table so eagerly that it was the first plate to be finished. It's difficult not to praise the dish: The lamb is seasoned so gently and deftly that it loses much of the "gamy" taste that many people associate with the meat, but a hint of it still remains in the background, leavened with richly scented cumin and garlic, heated lightly with chile and peppercorns. Even those who didn't care for lamb admitted that it was good stuff.
The garlic-sautéed eggplant also made some converts that night, including a friend who thought she hated the vegetable. The eggplants that Chinese Sichuan uses are small, fist-sized bulbs cut into large chunks that absorb the punchy sauce but don't get slimy or mushy in the process. The skin of the eggplant is left intact, providing that pleasant snap before your teeth sink into the flesh beneath.
On another visit, I introduced a friend to frog for the first time. Chinese Sichuan has several frog dishes on the menu (listed under the "seafood" section, although most pescetarians would disagree on that point). I went with the homestyle frog, not really knowing what homestyle meant until the bowl landed on the table.
The frog had been cooked shui zhu-style, a common Sichuan cooking technique that translates to "water-boiled" but is actually quite the opposite: Chunks of lean meat (like frog) are cooked in a significant amount of vegetable oil and spices, leaving the meat extremely tender but also a bit oily. The resulting gravy — which is poured on top of the meat before serving — separates easily but has an irresistible nutty, spicy taste and a deeply fragrant aroma. My friend and I both loved it, although she made the classic remark afterward that "frog tastes nothing like chicken!" No, it doesn't, but at Chinese Sichuan, the soft white meat does taste incredibly fresh and lush.
And although the lunch menu has remained intact from the old Chinese Halal days — $4.95 will get you a very generously sized entrée, a cup of soup and a plate of pickled vegetables — your money is better spent on the regular menu items. The lunch choices are limited to primarily Americanized Chinese dishes like orange chicken, although the ma po tofu is a smart and authentic choice, and the sautéed beef is extremely tender and tasty.
The best way to eat at Chinese Sichuan isn't to rush through at lunch; it's to eat as we did that first night, sharing dishes among friends or family and — hopefully — trying something new and falling in love with it.