Spinning Sichuan

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I ate at Chinese Sichuan Cuisine by mistake. I suspect that quite a few people have done that so far, and that more will in the upcoming few weeks.

The reason? As so often happens in Chinatown, the restaurant changed nearly overnight. One day, it was Chinese Halal Cuisine, serving — as the name would indicate — a selection of halal (food that is acceptable for strict Muslims to eat) meats prepared after a Chinese fashion. The next day, it was suddenly Chinese Sichuan Cuisine, not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese restaurant at 9114 Bellaire.

"Look," pointed my friend, whose idea it had been to have an iftar dinner there with a group one recent evening during Ramadan. "You can see the 'Sichuan' portion of the sign is brand new; it's brighter red than the other parts."


Chinese Sichuan Cuisine

9896 Bellaire, 713-773-1670.

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

The group hemmed and hawed a bit upon seeing that Chinese Halal was no more; what lay inside was a mystery. Would they have food that we could all eat? A day of fasting and the gnawing hunger that hits around 8 p.m. convinced the Muslims in our group that even if they had to eat bean sprouts, they wanted to eat here and now. It didn't matter. We headed inside.

Two hours and a large table full of empty plates and pots later, we were all glad that we did.

The new menu at Chinese Sichuan is almost hilariously non-halal. Not only does it contain a wealth of pork dishes, it even has several based on blood. My friend and I were looking longingly at some pig ears prepared with chile oil on the first page of the long menu, but we didn't want to offend anyone at dinner. What could possibly be ruder than ordering haraam items during an iftar meal, the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast during the evening?

The Muslims at the table just chuckled at us. "Order whatever you want!" one of them laughed. "We're not eating it!"

And so the process of twirling halal and haraam dishes — all mingled together on the lazy Susan that spun in the center of our enormous table — between one another began. We laughed and ate and talked for hours as the dishes did a dizzy dance among us all. It was oddly poetic.

To choose a favorite of that first evening is difficult. There was only one dish that most people at the table didn't particularly care for: dry, sautéed, shredded potato. It wasn't bad, and it was certainly an unusual item to find on a Sichuan menu. The fine threads of potato had been sautéed in hot sesame oil, lending an odd but tantalizing, smoky taste. If they hadn't been so greasy — and if the skin had been left on the potatoes — it might have actually been a hit.

Everything else, however, was outstanding.

Hot and spicy shrimp arrived on a plate heaped nearly a foot high with intensely red Sichuan peppers. Our table was briefly aghast; a look passed across faces that seemed to say, "Oh, God. What did we just order?" I eagerly took the first bite of the fat, lightly breaded shrimp that were draped across the top of the pepper mound.

"Not hot!" I pronounced them. "But damn good." And the shrimp began to spin away from me as everyone dug in. The breading was a very light rice flour that allowed the taste of the shrimp to sing through, with only a trace of the hot peppers having soaked into the batter. It seemed as if they'd been tossed together with the peppers before serving — a nice, light touch that didn't leave them overwhelmingly spicy.

A parade of dishes began to enter the room after that: eggplant with garlic sauce, sesame chicken, a stockpot-looking bowl of chicken and baby corn soup ("To calm the palate," my friend mentioned as he ordered it), another huge bowl of beef with tofu and a final dish of cumin lamb. In addition to all this were two plates piled high with "snacks" I'd snagged from the cart up front, three items on each for $6.

These little snack carts are a wonderful way to experience Sichuan food without committing to an entire dish or splurging on a full meal. At Chinese Sichuan Cuisine, the waitresses will fill the plates for you — simply point to the items you'd like — and off you go. I chose the slivers of pig's ear in chile oil, cabbage in a spicy garlic sauce, fresh cucumber spears, seaweed salad and bamboo shoots in chile sauce (for both plates).

With the exception of the pig's ear — not everyone can get behind the uniquely chewy, fibrous texture of the flesh and cartilage — all of the snacks were a hit with the group, too. The bamboo shoots in particular were such a maddeningly addictive combination of sweet and spicy that I could have eaten them like candy.

As the last dish of the evening clattered onto the lazy Susan, my friend noted quietly to me, "I think they're laughing at us."

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.

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.

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