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Sichuanese Restaurant's chongqing chicken (photography by Mimi Hoshut)

Bite Fight: Sichuanese Cuisine

If we’re honest, Dallas isn’t the optimal food city when it comes to nuanced Chinese regional cuisines.  The gentle umami of Fujian stews and the roasted meats of Xinjiang barbecue aren’t commonly found in the gastronomic landscape of a metroplex boasting 25 Pei Wei locations.  But over the years, I’ve come across some truly satisfying representations of classic Sichuanese dishes that I believe every Chinese food fan should have the pleasure of experiencing. Sichuan food is famous for its bold flavors, aggressive heat, salt, and pungent aromatics. Great Sichuanese dishes possess intense flavors that compound to create unique profiles that can leave you thirsty, sweaty, and hungry for more.

Since not all restaurant menus are created equally, I assigned myself the arduous task of taste-testing four Sichuan classics at three different establishments in Dallas to discover which kitchen’s version was best.  I visited Royal Sichuan (perennial favorite in Richardson’s Chinatown plaza), Sichuan King (Chinatown’s newcomer and also owned by the same people as Royal Sichuan), and Sichuanese Restaurant (venerated 12-year-old fixture in Plano).  The dishes I chose were staples easily found on any Sichuanese menu: dry-fried green beans, Chongqin chicken, dan dan noodles, and mapo tofu.

Here’s how they stacked up, in a head-to-head comparison:

Royal's pan-fried green beans
Royal’s pan-fried green beans

DRY FRIED GREEN BEANS

Royal Sichuan: Perfectly cooked beans, a satisfying crispness that reached the ideal texture for this dish.  The level of salinity and oil were pitch-perfect; easily the best of the three.

Sichuan King:  Someone bring me my lisinopril, these beans were so salty that I could feel my blood pressure approaching stroke levels.  The sodium addict at our table wolfed these down, but he’ll probably develop kidney stones within the next three days.

Sichuanese Restaurant: I wanted to love these, because they had a lovely depth of flavor lent by chili oil.  But even from a visual standpoint, it was clear that the beans were overcooked; blistered, limp, defeated by the wok.

 

Sichuan King's chongqing chicken
Sichuan King’s chongqing chicken

CHONGQING CHICKEN

Royal Sichuan: Full of Sichuan peppercorns but lacking in heat to balance the numbness.  I enjoyed the uniquely sour notes of the dish, but I’m also pretty sure it was 40% breading nubbins.

Sichuan King:  A pretty dish that suffered from the same heavy-handed salting.  On the plus side, the chicken portions were generous and the breading had a respectable crunch.

Sichuanese Restaurant: A dish that actually tasted like the peppers it was buried in; a showcase of ma la balance.  The diced chicken was perfectly seasoned and crispy without extraneous starch.

Royal Sichuan's dan dan mien
Royal Sichuan’s dan dan mien

DAN DAN MIEN

Royal Sichuan: From the brightness of water spinach to the nutty sesame notes in the chili oil, this dish brought ma jiang mian flavors to mingle with traditional dan dan mian heat.  The noodles themselves had a great thickness and texture that stood up to its sauce without ever feeling soggy.  I wanted ten more bowls.

Sichuan King: Truly awful and borderline flavorless.  One chopstick poke at the gummy noodles cast a gloomy outlook at our table.  Overcooked and sticky, they sat in a small pool of sauce that had good heat but nothing else.  Dunking spaghetti in Sriracha would’ve been a comparable experience.

Sichuanese Restaurant: This dish hit many of the right notes- lots of sauce, generous heaping of minced pork, al dente noodles- but the composed elements somehow missed the mark and ended up tasting like a bowl of ramen slicked in oil with restrained heat.

Sichuanese Restarant's mapo tofu
Sichuanese Restarant’s mapo tofu

MAPO TOFU

Royal Sichuan: Lovely, silky tofu lost in a one-note sea of chili oil that didn’t hit the aromatic, numbing heat or freshness elements essential to this iconic dish.  Inoffensive, but mediocre.

Sichuan King: Looked better than it tasted.  The sauce was overly thickened with starch until it reached a gelatinous consistency.  The numbing heat was on point and there were some aromatic floral notes, but the tofu didn’t hold up to its goopy prison.

Sichuanese Restaurant: Firmest tofu of the three presented a great textural component to the dish- the tofu here was the star and not just a jiggly understudy to the sauce.  The flavor of tofu helped elevate this dish above its otherwise forgettable components.

FINAL VERDICT

It’s a 2-2 tie between Royal Sichuan and Sichuanese Restaurant, with Sichuan King earning the consolation prize of at least being better than Pei Wei.