Even as a flurry of exciting new restaurants is opening in Houston, I find myself more attracted these days to the intriguing flavors of Sichuan cuisine—the deft balance between spicy, sweet, sour, salty and spicy; the adaptive nature of its huge array of cold dishes to our hot climate; the interesting permutations found at Sichuan restaurants of varying degrees of "authenticity" (a conversation for another time); and the icy-clear moment you can feel the numbing blast of the Sichuan peppercorns as they work their magic on your tongue. Harold McGee referred to that moment as "something like the effect of carbonated drinks" in his great tome On Food and Cooking; for me, it's like air conditioning for your mouth.
At home, this proclivity shows in the handfuls of Sichuan-flavored green pea snacks I munch on until the numbing sensation sets in, taking a short breather until the effect fades, then starting back up again in a cycle that soon becomes hard to break. At work, it shows in the fact that last week I drove all the way to Chinatown to visit one particular restaurant for research purposes, and instead ended up eating at Sichuan Noodles, a completely different restaurant. If there's a culinary version of chasing the dragon, I'm hooked, and in constant pursuit of that Sichuan high.
The funny thing about Sichuan pepper is that it's not spicy, per se. Calling the effect spicy would be to overlook the complex set of physical reactions that zing across your tongue like electrical currents with each successive bite. And if the peppercorns were simply spicy, they'd perhaps overpower the sauces and oils into which they're blended. The peppercorns have an almost citrus-like flavor that only adds to the refreshing nature of their tingling effect, like taking a big gulp of Topo Chico with lemon.
The cold sesame noodles, or liangfen, at Sichuan Noodle demonstrate the peppercorns' characteristics extremely well. The noodles are attractive enough and of themselves—made from green bean starch, they're firmly gelatinous with a texture that absorbs the sesame sauce on top before melting into a cool puddle on your tongue—but it's the sauce that's the star here. Together with the thick sesame paste that makes up the base, the garlic and green onions and vinegar and soy sauce and those lemony, tingly peppercorns combine to make a savory, herbal, nutty, slightly sweet, slightly salty, utterly fascinating sauce that demands to be mixed thoroughly with those soft noodles, coating every fat, jiggly strand. Imagine the best pesto you've ever had crossed with the best gremolata you've ever had, richly layered with flavors to be discovered and contemplated anew with each slurp.
If you wanted to make a meal of the $3.95 cold sesame noodles, I suppose you could, though I'd recommend at least ordering a side of crunchy, vinegar-marinated cucumbers ($2.25) to round out the whole affair; the snappy bite of the cucumbers in contrast with the slippery-soft noodles makes for a memorable meal, and one that's light on both the stomach and the wallet.
I ordered one more dish at Sichuan Noodles last week, however, wanting to have enough left over for dinner that night, greedy for two Sichuan meals in one day. Unlike the cold sesame noodles, "cold pot" isn't served cold. Instead, it comes out at less of a bubbling, boiling temperature than traditional hot pot, more "pretty hot" than "scalding hot." It's the same sort of cheerfully misleading euphemism as "water-boiled" beef or fish, which sounds like an incredibly tame cooking method until you realize that's it's an even more intense version of stir-frying.
The cold pot beef with tofu held still more of those red peppercorns, along with the copious amounts of chile oil that make dining at a Sichuan restaurant in a nice blouse an act of madness. I slurped up the broth eagerly, stopping occasionally to appreciate the tender slices of beef, which are purposely cooked at a lower temperature to maintain their soft texture. Still, the broth was nothing in comparison to those complex, layered bites of sesame noodles. I purposely left half the bowl behind, packing it up for later, where I found to my great enjoyment at home that evening the cold noodles, now completely saturated with that glorious sauce, had grown even better with time.
Sichuan Noodles, 9889 Bellaire Blvd., Ste. C-305, 832-831-3038