I thought I could take the pain.
The ratio of dried red chiles to meat on the plate of Chongqing chicken at Bellevue’s Spiced: Truly Chinese Cuisine was only about 1:2, but the dish was a warning that Spiced takes both halves of its name seriously. As many restaurants do, Spiced uses red-pepper icons on its menu to signal the heat of a dish, and on the first two pages—its Sichuan specialties—the margins look like they’re decorated with New Mexican ristras.
The sight of all that red in the Chongqing chicken (a three-pepper dish) didn’t bother me. Chiles are often used for fragrance as much as heat in Sichuan dishes, and any pepper pieces that clung to the dime-sized chunks of meat were easy to brush off. But after three or four of the crunchy chunks, very lightly breaded and flecked with sesame seeds, my mouth started buzzing, my entire body seemed to turn Hello Kitty pink, and I had to reach for the rice bowl for relief. It wasn’t the peppers I could see that got me. It was the ones I couldn’t.
There are two main types of spicy in Chinese food. La is capsaicin spicy, the one we’re most familiar with, that prickles, warms, and hurts. But then there’s ma spicy—a peculiar buzzy, numbing feeling that comes from Sichuan peppercorns (aka prickly ash buds). Sichuan chefs like to combine the two for shock and awe; as the owner of a Sichuan restaurant in the Bay Area once told me, “We use the Sichuan peppercorns to numb the mouth so we can make the food even hotter”—the equivalent of doing a line of coke in the bathroom in order to finish off a keg. It turned out that the oil the meat was fried in had been spiked with Sichuan peppercorns, too. As I kept eating Spiced’s Chongqing chicken, alternating it with pieces of meltingly tender Sichuan-style fish poached in oil redolent of toasted chiles and garlic, I put off all thoughts of tomorrow and dove into the hurt.
Only when my stomach started cramping was it time to concede defeat.
Spiced opened two months ago next door to the Crossroads Mall, and was quickly picked up by the Chinese-foodie telephone tree. The dining room, crowded every night, buzzes with Mandarin. According to the waitstaff, the chef comes from Chongqing, a city renowned throughout China for its blunt, incendiary food. And if you pay close attention to the plates on the tables of Chinese diners, you’ll spot that most of their food is bright, bright red.
The restaurant got discovered so quickly that the strain shows on the waitstaff, some of whom look almost panic-stricken as they sprint through the aisle. They’re not quite sure what to do with their non-Chinese clientele, either. The waiter on my third visit was a befuddled galoot who, among other things, didn’t alert us to the fact that the dumplings we’d ordered from the appetizer menu were actually desserts and forgot one of the entrées. During our second meal, an affably patronizing waitress stopped by to comment on how rare it was for Americans to be eating spicy food, recommending milder dishes for us the next time.
But on my first visit, I was lucky enough to encounter the waiter who most wants to bring his customers into the fold. If you don’t speak Mandarin, you want to call over the compact, muscular guy in his 30s wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Maybe it was partly because when he arrived I was mowing my way through a heap of sliced pig ear from the appetizer case, but he started the night by explaining Spiced’s menu—properly.
First, he had us turn to the first major spread in the menu, the one with all the pepper icons on it. “All Sichuan restaurants offer these types of dishes,” he said, pointing to the right side, which listed four different preparations—pickled peppers, green chiles, boiled with chiles, and chopped chiles—each with various meats. “And this list,” he said, pointing to the Chef’s Specialty column on the left, “is the dishes unique to this restaurant.” He mentioned that frog (live until ordered!) and lamb were Spiced’s signature meats, and divulged that his favorite dish was actually the “lamb in dry pot” hidden on the next page. It was the best thing we ate over the course of my three visits.
The “dry pot” turned out to be a shallow silver wok set above an alcohol flame. Snipped red chiles interlaced with threads of green Chinese celery covered the surface, and underneath we could hear the burbling of chile oil and broth. I plucked out pieces of lamb, immeasurably tender, as well as shavings of fried garlic and ginger, sturdy bean sprouts, and caramelized onions. The cool, floral crunch of the Chinese celery, set against the flush of heat and spice, proved the genius of the dish: It was like a well-placed joke mid-diatribe.
Three meals at Spiced were hardly enough to work through the menu—hell, it’d take 10 to get a general idea. But here’s my advice on how to take it on.
Hit the cold case first. Your first stop before sitting down should be the display case next to the cash register, where you pick out three cold plates for $6 and have them brought to your table. Every day brings a different assortment: Fat wedges of cucumbers tossed with a little garlic, pickled long beans thrumming with both ma and la heat, candied peanuts tossed with tiny dried fish, seaweed dressed in sesame oil, translucent slices of crunchy pig ear (addictive), paper-thin pieces of chicken gizzard (satiny one night, tough another), and shavings of meaty pork stomach with just the barest hint of chewiness.
Ignore (mostly) the columns labeled “beef,” “pork,” and “rice and noodles.” Despite the restaurant’s “Truly Chinese Cuisine” subtitle, its menu is bulked out with Chinese-American standards that one of the servers said flat out were there for American diners. That said, those columns include a number of Sichuan classics whose bastardized versions most of us know: ma po tofu, kung pao chicken, twice-cooked pork, dan dan noodles, tea-smoked duck. They’re worth a try, especially if you’re daunted by the pictures of fish heads smothered in chiles.
Order one less dish than you think you should, and make at least one of the dishes a vegetable side. Some of the dishes at Spiced are ginormous; The waiter estimated that our 1.5-quart bowl of Sichuan-style fish contained two pounds of meat. For two or three people, order one three-chile dish and a vegetable, such as the amazing pea sprouts with shaved garlic, the green beans flecked with ground pork, or the Chinese broccoli with Chinese celery. Their clear sauces and light seasoning counteract the peppers. You may spy many of the diners eating ribbons of paper-thin tofu skin tossed with chives, another one of the house specialties, but I found it a little tough and bland.
Don’t be put off by the oil. Some Yelpers have complained about the oiliness of the food. I e-mailed Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the groundbreaking Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty, to ask about dishes like the dry pot and the Sichuan-style fish, each of which must have contained two cups of oil. “These kinds of dishes, while wildly trendy now all over China, represent just one aspect of a very diverse cuisine, and an aspect that is traditionally cheap and downmarket,” she wrote. “High-class Sichuan restaurants don’t tend to emphasize these very oily dishes. However, the oil carries the fragrance (xiang wei) of the spices. If you use chopsticks, you don’t actually eat that much oil—you take food out of the oil. Only Westerners spoon oily food over their rice.”
See red. There’s no point in going to a Sichuan restaurant if you’re not willing to embrace the pain. My stomach may have been rumbling after the triple onslaught of spiced cold meats, Chongqing chicken, and Sichuan-style fish, but the rest of my body thrummed with endorphins, so high I barely made it back onto the highway.