It’s counterintuitive, yet true. People who live in hot climates naturally turn to spicy foods to combat heat: The spices make you sweat, which cools your body down. Now, look beyond jalapeños to discover the relief of culinary heat that has been a Far East tradition for more than 5,000 years.
“There are currently 24 distinct flavor profiles and 56 cooking methods in Sichuan cooking,” says Kristina Zhao, who, along with with her father, Ye, owns and operates the restaurant.
At Sichuan House, which opened its doors last year, you control the thermostat, thanks to a descriptive menu that details the heat level of every dish. And if you thought Sichuan food was only about the sear, here you’ll quickly discover the complexities of this culinary art form.
“There are currently 24 distinct flavor profiles and 56 cooking methods in Sichuan cooking,” says Kristina Zhao, who, along with with her father, Ye, owns and operates the restaurant. Ye was born and raised in Sichuan Province and has owned a grocery store in San Antonio since 1997. Kristina, who was born in China but raised here, complements her father’s authentic knowledge of the region’s dishes. Armed with corporate communications and public relations degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and experience in the corporate world, she began researching the foods she grew up with so she could better serve her customers. The resulting menu demystifies the ancient cuisine by tagging dishes with key terms: smoky, savory, sweet, tangy, spicy, aromatic, fresh and light.
In addition to the flavor hints, heat levels are listed from 0 to 2.5. Sichuan peppers delight the taste buds with a mix of citrusy sweetness and slow-rising heat that pleasantly tingles, then subsides. The levels refer to how the dish is seasoned in the kitchen. You can always add more chili.
A seasoned Sichuan chef is expected to put out one dish per minute, according to Zhao. That’s why you’ll find slow-braised meats, quick wok sautés, prepped sauces, rich broths and preserved vegetables featured throughout the menu.
Sichuan House’s extensive offerings are also easy to navigate, thanks to a logical layout that calls out starters, soups, classics, house signature dishes, vegetable and tofu dishes, rice and noodles, plus a handful of obligatory “Americanized Chinese Classics,” such as Sesame Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken. Don’t order those; instead, bring friends and try at least one dish from every other category.
Order the Sweet & Spicy Crunchy Peanuts (heat level 1) as you ponder the menu. You’ll get a generous bowl of skin-on peanuts, flash fried and tossed with red chili flakes, chili oil and a touch of sugar. Nobody can eat just one.
Don’t Miss Dishes
1. Zhao calls the Dry Pot a contemporary spin on traditional wet Hot Pot. Designed to be shared by three to five diners, it has lotus root, mushrooms, cabbage and other veggies sautéed with your choice of meats or tofu, tossed in a savory mix of more than 47 herbs, spices and chiles.
2. Ma Po Dou Fu, a classic Sichuan dish, is a brightly colored mix of silky tofu, beef and delicately diced aromatic vegetables. Served with pork in other restaurants, traditional beef adds a deeper flavor with less grease.
3. Beijing Pork Tenderloin is a new menu item that offers the mild, sweet taste of Beijing Duck. Tuck slices of the seasoned pork and shredded scallions into the steamed buns, drizzle on some hot oil, and share the love.
Once you’re primed, stay in neutral with a 0.5 heat level starter: Salt & Sichuan Peppercorn Calamari. The dish marries familiar lightly battered and crisply fried squid pieces with the passion of a quick wok sauté of fiery ground peppercorns and colorful slivers of bell peppers and scallions.
Don’t fret if the calamari disappears in an instant. By now, the plate of Cucumbers with Garlic has probably arrived and is wafting your way. Its 0.5 spice level comes from the barrage of minced garlic pounded into the salty, smashed cucumber chunks, not from fiery peppers. Ask for a small bowl of white rice to offset the spice.
If you love pungent, you’ll go crazy for the Spicy & Garlicky Cold Noodles, which start at 1.5 but can get as hot as you can stand. Room temperature egg noodles are tossed with scallions in a thin veil of vinegar, soy and sugar sauce, served over bean sprouts and then topped with a mixture of red chili flakes, ground Sichuan peppercorns and a ton of minced garlic. Mix in as much of the herb-filled goodness of the chili-garlic pepper as your buds allow.
When it’s time for something meaty, turn to your old friend, pork. Each of the three dishes featuring pork belly (the cut used for bacon) showcases the velveteen nature of the beast as either star or supporting ingredient. Pure indulgent delight comes with the fat slices of sweet-glazed pork that glisten atop steamed baby bok choy in Dong Po Braised Pork Belly, which is mild at heat level 0. Don’t plan to eat this rich dish in one sitting, unless you’re sharing with plenty of friends. Spicier Twice Cooked Pork Belly (level 1), first boiled then stir-fried, is a balance of fattiness, thin-sliced meatiness, and savory sauce flavored with ginger, garlic, fermented black beans and signature Sichuan peppers. It’s a nuclear umami bomb.
The more unusual pork belly dish, at least to American palates, may be the Sichuan Braised Pork Belly (also level 1). After marinating in a savory mix, the full slab is deep fried, thick sliced, then draped over servings of fermented, salty and slightly bitter mustard greens. The pork and greens are then steamed together, forever linking their flavorful souls into a rich, earthy dish.
Enter an interlude of vegetables—either the upscale jumble of chewy yet silky mushrooms or the bright sautéed green beans tossed with garlic, ginger and the essence of salty preserved greens. You’ll welcome the change of pace and 0 level heat.
For a true taste of Sichuan Province, order the poached fish, which takes the heat up to level 2. At the root of the flavor is the artful slow broth filled with vegetables, ginger, cumin, red chili flakes, peppercorns and bean paste. Basa (a kind of mackarel) fillets are poached in the broth to order, turning the otherwise neutral fish into a mouthful of zest. Before serving, the soupy mix is topped with more spices, cool fresh cilantro, and scallions. Spoon plenty over steamed rice and start filling those to-go containers with all of the leftovers.