The chicken with hot peppers at Sarah Place, a Sichuan restaurant in Bellaire Chinatown, is served with a raft of bright-red dried Sichuan peppers on top. The chicken is cut into small boneless nuggets and stir-fried with slick and meaty reconstituted brown mushrooms. It is tossed in a sauce that coats the chicken and leaves a dark-orange stain on the plate. The flavor of the dish gets "curiouser and curiouser," as Alice said on her visit to Wonderland.
The chicken tastes extremely hot at first, and then your mouth starts to tingle. Numbness and weird flavor hallucinations follow, all signs that point to an abundance of Sichuan peppercorns. This bizarre spice was outlawed in the U.S. until a few years ago. Many of my dining companions find the roller coaster of oral sensations that the spice induces unpleasant. I love the stuff and dishes that employ it, like the chicken with hot peppers at Sarah Place. The fact is, this is one of the more mainstream items available there.
The menu starts with hot pot bullfrog. The list of specialties goes on to include a dizzying array of pork parts, including shins, hocks and intestines. A dish combining pork intestines and squid sounded novel. I sampled many of these Northern Chinese favorites, including pork intestines, some years ago when I visited another Houston Chinese restaurant with an exchange student from Peking ["Forbidden City Food," November 7, 2002]. I dedicated that review to trying unusual dishes in search of new flavors. And I discovered that sometimes when the Chinese waiter says, "Not for you!" it pays to listen to him.
If you are interested in trying bullfrog or pig intestines, Sarah Place is the perfect restaurant for it. But this time, instead of looking for strange stuff to eat, I decided to try to find some authentic Sichuan food that my offal-averse dining companions might like.
On my first visit, with two friends, we tried an appetizer of thick, rubbery Sichuan noodles tossed in chile oil that left us all unimpressed. The sauce didn't seem to soak into the noodles at all. We also got an order of soup dumplings that were secretively listed at the bottom of the appetizer menu in Chinese characters only.
Soup dumplings are ingeniously fabricated with a lump of aspic inside on top of the filling so that when the dumpling is heated, the aspic dissolves. When you bite into a soup dumpling, you get a delicious mouthful of soup along with the filling and the noodle-like wrapper. The ones at Sarah Place are good, but the ones at Fufu Cafe across the street are better.
We also had the Sichuan specialty called "steam beef." The beef in this dish is cut into thin strips and poached with carrots, leeks and other vegetables. Then the relatively flavorless meat and vegetables are submerged in an extremely spicy red sauce with lots of garlic, peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. It's a fascinating combination of spicy and mild.
We also attempted to get an intriguing-looking lamb dish that the folks at the next table were eating. The lamb and green onions we ended up eating was a mild stir-fry of thin strips of lamb meat with scallions and garlic, but not much spice. It was tasty, but it wasn't the dish we were trying to order. The dish we were admiring was a deep-fried whole leg of lamb, and at $20 it was one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. The waitress explained that the restaurant was sold out.
The best thing that we tried on that first visit was a whole fried fish in Sichuan sauce. The crispy fried fish looked like a tilapia. It came on an oval platter in the same sort of brick red sauce of garlic, Sichuan dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns that already coated the inside of my mouth. We put it in the middle of the table and attacked it with our chopsticks. Within minutes, the poor fish looked like it had been denuded by a flock of hungry seagulls.
I wondered how an authentic Sichuan restaurant like Sarah Place fared in the brave new world of restaurant reviewing. On Yelp, where "real people" write "real reviews," it got a miserable rating of two out of five possible stars. It's easy to understand how this kind of food would fail to impress a mainstream diner in search of familiar Chinese favorites.
A reviewer from New York complained that the restaurant used some seasoning that made your tongue numb and suggested they leave it out. A reviewer from Richardson got into a confrontation with an irate waiter in the parking lot over the service. The diner said he wasn't worried because he carried a concealed handgun. Now that's a reviewer you don't want to piss off.
If you are looking for straight-ahead Chinese food, Sarah Place has a few things on the menu that will suit you. On my second trip there, I picked up several white plastic bags full of takeout food. I correctly predicted that the seafood dumplings and Yunnan noodles would be good choices for the spice-averse members of the family.
The seafood dumplings went fast. They were small and came 12 to an order. The thick dumpling wrappers were folded over to look like a three-cornered hat, and they were filled with chopped fish and shrimp mixed with leeks. We dunked them in the little container of soy dipping sauce they came with.
Yunnan rice noodles come with rice noodles the size and shape of spaghetti and include beef, shrimp and mushrooms in what tasted to me like chicken broth. The light soup and noodles were very popular with the younger members of the family.
Along with the Sichuan chicken, I also got an order of stir-fried Chinese bacon. I imagined big chunks of salty smoked pork. What we got was a dish that seemed to consist mainly of pressed tofu and leeks seasoned with a few little bites of bacon. Great if you like bacon-flavored tofu, otherwise take a pass.
There are a lot more items on the menu that sound intriguing. I want to go back sometime soon and sample the beef with sour pepper, lobster with black pepper, crab with black bean sauce, and the famous mapo tofu. There are several more interesting noodle dishes, too.
As you can tell by the Yelp reviews, this is not the pandering Panda-type of Chinese restaurant. There aren't any fried egg rolls or crab-and-cream cheese puffs on the menu. But if you are interested in trying some spicy Sichuan cooking and have a taste for exotic seasonings like Sichuan peppercorns, by all means give Sarah Place a try.