Má là. Not your garden-variety spicy. This kind of spice comes from the Sichuan peppercorn, and its numbing effects can become quite addictive.
My remedy for an overly bland diet (which tends to happen when I overload on salads and sandwiches throughout the week) is overwhelming my tastebuds with a meal at Spices on the weekend. We also like to bring friends here, to show them what a truly authentic Sichuan meal is.
Here are some of my favorites…
Fried Chicken with Explosive Chili Pepper! ($8.95) (Seriously, there are “!!!” written on the menu.) These are mini chicken thighs, flash-fried then wok-tossed in a heaping mound of red chili peppers, garlic, ginger and scallion. Great with a Qing Dao beer!
Sizzling Lamb with Cumin ($9.95) These arrive nested in a foil lined hot plate, sizzling and encrusted in smoky cumin:
Fried Stinky Tofu ($4.25) On certain days, you can smell this pungent dish from around the block. People always ask me what it tastes like. Well, it’s hard to say- it’s like describing a well aged cheese. Ripe, a bit ammoniated, a creamy center surrounded by a crispy, light shell. Try it and even if you throw up a little in your mouth, you can at least brag that you’ve eaten fermented curdled soybeans.
Spicy Fish Filet Bowl with Flaming Red Oil ($9.95) Don’t be surprised if you get the flaming red runs after eating this. Hey, if that’s a sign it’s good, I’m in!
Dry Braised String Beans ($7.95) The BEST vegetarian dish here- it’s “dry” because they are flash fried over such a high heat, with no sauce, so the beans stay tender and crispy, with a smoky garlic finish.
Sichuan whole fish with hot chili bean sauce ($12.95) What a steal for a whole fish. I usually go for the head first – the best part…. This is not so spicy. The sauce is actually somewhat sweet and sour, and surprise! full of garlic.
Wontons in Flaming Red Oil (aka hong you chao shou) This is a great appetizer, or side dish, or just order two and make it a meal! As you can see, the flaming red oil sauce is ubiquitous throughout the menu.
Service: It will seem speedy and abrupt… if you are not Chinese. Dishes arrive as they come out from the wok – really in no apparent order. If they get a break, the petite Chinese girl servers will take a breather and chat away in Chinese. It’s like being in China! (btw, I’m throwing my fingers up in a “V” sign.)
Ambiance: Small and packed on the weekend. Although clean, do not expect a fine dining establishment! You are here for Sichuan flaming red oil! Our favorite is the owner- Taiwanese pop star extraordinaire (picture flowing hair, shirt open a few too many buttons, and a Gucci mens carry-all) but so nice.
Other Must Tries: “Lion’s Head” braised giant meatball, numbing spice beef tendon (appetizer), hot and spicy beef combination (fu qi fei pian) (appetizer), Shrimp “twin style”- spicy and walnut creamed
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond
294 8th Avenue
San Francisco, CA