In 2010, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China, was accorded special status by UNESCO as an official City of Gastronomy, a title shared by only a handful of other global cities—none of them American, by the way—that indicates a level of culinary advancement a far sight deeper than tossing some crawfish into a bowl of pho and calling it Mutt City cuisine (we'll get there one day, Houston!).
Chengdu is home to China's first brewery as well as the country's first food museum; its 4,700 square miles house over 60,000 restaurants and 2,300 chefs. A saying in China says that “the best cuisine is from China, while the richest flavor is from Chengdu,” with Chengdu also recognized as the cradle of Sichuan cuisine. Here, food is serious business. Consequently, as my friend Miya likes to remind me, there is more to Sichuan cuisine in Houston than Mala Sichuan.
If you've had your interest piqued by the popular restaurant—whether at its original location in Chinatown or the new joint in Montrose—and are craving some culinary advancement of your own, a suggestion for life beyond Mala: Peking Cuisine Chinese Restaurant, which opened nearly 20 years ago and has since become a staple for the mainland Chinese immigrant community in Houston.
This is where my friend Thomas took a group of us last week for Peking duck—a longtime speciality of Beijing in northern China—and an assortment of Sichuan specialties including the famous fuqi feipian (couple's lung slices; despite the name, there's no actual lung in the dish) and la pi (chilled noodles with a spicy sauce). Peking duck is the big draw here, which should ideally be booked in advance, served with thin pancakes ("as it should only ever be served," Miya later noted on my Facebook page when I posted a photo of our meal) in which you can roll up the tender cuts of meat held together with bits of crispy, crackly, sweet-and-salty duck skin.
We began our meal at Peking Cuisine in the traditional Chinese way, which is to say with cold appetizers. A parade of cool cucumber chunks in red chile sauce, intertwined strands of garlicky seaweed, spicy pickled vegetables, honey-smoked fish and more trundled slowly past each of us, spinning gently on the lazy susan that took up most of our large table. Though it was sweltering that day—and although the Peking duck was, indeed, as great as everyone has held it up to be over the years—I was surprised to find that my favorite dish of the day wasn't one of the cool dishes, but rather something from the secondary line-up of hot dishes: a bowl of soup as steamy as the tar-black asphalt parking lot outside.
The Best Mao Xie Wan, as it's called on the menu at Peking, has many spelling variations in China, maoxue wang being perhaps the most common. There are as many different recipes for mao xie wan as there are ways to spell it, but the central component of the dish remains the same wherever it's prepared: curdled blood, which should give you some idea as to why the soup is also nicknamed "bubbling blood." Here at Peking Cuisine, the blood comes from pigs (though it can just as easily come from chickens or ducks in China) as does the tripe and other stray bits of meat floating in the spicy stew.
As someone who can typically take or leave blood—terrific in morcilla or dinuguan, a little too strong in cake form in bun bo Hue—as well as tripe, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the mao xie wan. It's a tribute to the dish's fine balance of flavors, the blend of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty for which Sichuan cuisine is so prized. And best of all, unlike the duck, you don't even have to call ahead for it.
Peking Cuisine Chinese Restaurant, 8332 Southwest Fwy., 713-988-5838, peking-cuisine.com