Katy Zang, the stylish Chinese woman who owns Szechuan Garden restaurant on Westheimer, came over to our table to help. Our waiter wasn't getting it -- I had asked for kung pao chicken off the Anglo menu, but with whole Szechuan peppercorns added. The owner had to explain our special request to him in Chinese.
My tablemates, Press editor Cathy Matusow and food writer Eric Gerber, had never tasted Szechuan peppercorns before. I was all excited about turning them on to this rare spice.
When the spiked kung pao arrived, I fished a couple of the tiny spice bombs out of the chicken and put one onto each of their plates. Eric looked a little shocked as the woody bud began to numb his tongue. Cathy didn't get off on one, so I gave her another. She chewed them both up and after a minute or so she said, "It's like chewing a Sweet Tart."
9013 Westheimer, 832-252-1888.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays.
Pan-fried dumpling: $4.25
Kung pao chicken: $7.95
Orange beef: $8.95
Szechuan style beef: $8.95
Moo shu pork: $7.95
Szechuan peppercorns look like miniature cloves. They are actually the buds of an Asian shrub called prickly ash. They were banned in the U.S. in the late 1960s as a possible carrier of citrus canker. Last year, a heat treatment that eliminates the disease was discovered. After 40 years off the market, Szechuan peppercorns have been legalized again.
The spice is popular all over Asia, where its bizarre effect on the taste buds is relished. It's hard to describe what the peppercorns taste like because different people taste different flavors. You might think it tastes like mint, pepper, oranges, licorice or all of the above. They also impart a numbing, tingling sensation to the tongue, a quality known as ma in Chinese.
The problem is that once Szechuan peppercorns get hold of your tongue, they don't let go for a while. No matter what you put in your mouth, it tastes like fizzy mint or orange, or whatever. And all you can do is sit back and enjoy the trip.
Luckily, we had already finished a dumpling appetizer and some moo shu pork pancakes. The pan-fried dumplings were nothing special. They were overbrowned and tough from spending too much time in the frying pan. I liked the forbidding-looking dark brown dipping sauce that came with them, though. It had a bright orange halo from all the chile oil they put in it.
The moo shu pork was quite elegant. Shredded cabbage, onions, spices and pork were stir-fried together and served on a platter with a side plate containing thin pancakes neatly folded into quarters. The waiter kindly spread hoisin on one pancake, loaded it with the pork and cabbage stuffing and gave it to Cathy. The males were left to roll their own.
Since there were only four pancakes, politeness dictated that we each get one. So I loaded mine with all the pork and cabbage it could possibly hold and rolled it up like an oversized moo shu burrito. It barely fit in my mouth -- which probably defeated the whole politeness thing. But it sure tasted good.
A dish called Szechuan beef was delivered at the same time as the kung pao with peppercorns. It looked good, but we couldn't really taste it. Eric and Cathy were both a little perturbed after ten minutes because the fizzy tongue sensation wasn't going away. No matter how much beer or ice water we gargled with, our mouths kept sparking.
"It's weird, all right, but what's so great about it? I can't taste anything," Cathy said with displeasure. I felt guilty, like I had slipped something in her cocktail. "What do you like about it?" she wanted to know.
I tried to explain the appeal of a long-forbidden psychotropic spice like Szechuan peppercorns to culinary adventurers. But she just rubbed her lips with her napkin and looked annoyed.
Eric wasn't exactly delighted either. "I had to get some ice cream at home later to tone down the buzzy-buzzy I still had on my tongue/lips from those peppercorns..." he wrote in an e-mail the next day.
I first tried the magic peppercorns at a Szechuan restaurant on Bellaire [see "Psychedelic Peppercorns," June 9, 2005]. Ever since then, I've been looking for other Houston Chinese restaurants that serve them. But they remain a rarity.
I was delighted to find them at a clean and shiny new eatery like Szechuan Garden. The restaurant has only been open for six months, but it's already becoming popular in the Asian community for its authentic Szechuan cooking. Still, it wasn't easy to talk them into serving me the peppercorns on either of my visits. On my first visit, three employees visited my table to try and figure out what I wanted. I had asked the Chinese-speaking waitress if any of the dishes on the English language menu contained Szechuan peppercorns. She didn't understand, so she sent over Katy Zang's English-speaking daughter, Linda.
Linda recommended I order from the more exotic Chinese-language menu. "Three pepper chicken" sounded like what I was looking for, so I ordered some of that. But then her mom came over and quizzed me further, asking if I was sure I wanted Chinese-style chicken. I said yes, figuring the only difference was the peppercorns.
My smug satisfaction turned to disappointment when the three-pepper chicken arrived. Digging around in the sauce, I couldn't see any Szechuan peppercorns. And then there was the chicken itself. It was cut into tiny pieces, each with a bit of bone inside. Every time I took a bite, I had to stick my fingers in my mouth to fish out the bones. So that's what Katy was worried about when she asked me if I was sure I wanted Chinese chicken!
The Chinese like chicken on the bone. They also eat their shrimp with the shells on. It may sound weird to us, but Chinese food authorities explain that since there aren't any dairy foods in China, chicken bones and shrimp shells are eaten for the calcium content. Meanwhile, the Chinese can't figure out how we can eat anything that smells as disgusting as cheese.
When Katy Zang came by the table to see how I liked my chicken, I didn't dare complain about the bones. But I did ask her why I couldn't see the peppercorns. She replied that the peppercorns used in this dish were powdered. But she volunteered to take the plate back to the kitchen and add some whole peppercorns.
When she came back, I was halfway satisfied. I got my Szechuan peppercorns, but I was still stuck with a plate of bony chicken. I asked Katy Zang if next time, it would be possible to get a boneless chicken dish from the English menu with some whole peppercorns added.
"No problem," she replied. But I wondered why there weren't any Szechuan peppercorns on the English-language menu items to begin with.
"English-speaking people don't like Szechuan peppercorns," she said. At the time, I objected to this broad generalization. But now I have to admit that she's probably right.
My companion on that first visit wouldn't touch the chicken dish, both because of the peppercorns and the bones. She got the orange beef, big cubes of beef fried in cornstarch and coated with a spicy sauce that contains a lot of dried orange peel. It was quite good, though not very unusual.
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I also took the Szechuan beef from our second visit home and ate it when I could actually taste it. The tender chunks of beef wok-tossed with red and green bell peppers were pleasant enough, though a little light on the spices.
Szechuan Garden seems to cover all its bases with mild, Texan-friendly beef dishes, peppery and authentic-tasting regional Chinese dishes, and Szechuan exotica if you can read Chinese. Chile heads should order a dish with one of the little pepper symbols next to it on the menu and tell them to make it extra-hot.
And if you happen to be one of those freaky Anthony Bourdain types who's willing to eat weird peppercorns that light up your mouth like a Christmas tree -- then ask them to make you some spicy chicken with whole Szechuan peppercorns in it.
Just don't complain when the buzz lasts longer than you want it to.