Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sichuan Gourmet: Billerica, MA

For the past three years, there has been no dearth of travel shows featuring Szehuan/Szechwan/Sichuan cuisine. Hosts, such as Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, coo and blubber over the numbing heat of dishes that have been given the Sichuan peppercorn treatment. Unfortunately, even in Boston's Chinatown, there isn't exactly a go to Sichuan restaurant. Most are Cantonese, or Taiwanese, and therefore not necessarily showing their strength in spicy food stuffs. However, outside of Boston, there is a restaurant which has become a bit of a local franchise that has gained some popularity among Chinese and those who simply crave the spicy high you might enjoy after eating some fine Sichuan delicacies. This is the Sichuan Gourmet restaurant family, with a restaurant each in Billerica, Framingham, Brookline, and Sharon.
Today, as is our usual routine, my bigger half asked what I'd like for lunch. Being a seriously hot day in New England, part of a heat wave that literally set records yesterday in Boston, I vied for something also hot and spicy, which seems counter intuitive, but hot food allegedly cools you down on a hot day... and it's also just plain awesome. Since he had enough time before having to head into work for the day, we decided to take the drive over to Billerica, which is a little far, but, let's face it, the peppercorn has come a'callin'. So after a good deal of stupid, accident begets rubber necking traffic on 93 South, we finally made it to the restaurant.
Now, this restaurant is something that you would absolutely drive by if you weren't in the know. A small strip mall with a laundry mat and a package store, there couldn't possibly be an authentic Sichuan restaurant here. But indeed there is. The inside is just as humble as the outside. There are maybe twenty tables, and little decor beyond a few Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling. The music is of particular note, vying from Chinese string instrument tunes, to show tunes, to a few classical symphonies.
But if you've arrived at the right time (i.e., not at lunch or dinner rush), you'll be seated quickly, and there will be a pot of tea and a little bowl of pickled vegetables awaiting your arrival. The pickled vegetables actually serve as a good window into your spicy future. Carrots, cabbage, and the stalks of broccoli are pickled in a slightly spicy, vinegary broth. It's an excellent start to your meal, and makes you feel pretty welcome. Also, just to give a nod to the wait staff, everyone here is very warm and inviting. Servers keep your water glasses filled, and are careful to check that you're enjoying each dish.
So, since this smart couple is a big fan of the spicy and the spiciest, we ordered three dishes: to start, the spicy Sichuan cold noodles. Then as our two main courses, we picked out the Mala Lamb, and the Ma Po Tofu with pork.
1) The cold noodles: The least spicy of our dishes, we started with the Sichuan noodle offering. Cold, thin, vermicelli size noodles arrive in a bowl, topped with chopped spring onions, peanuts, and bean sprouts. The sauce is a mix of some sort of a spicy red oil, and then a salty soy style syrup. This dish is light, and will introduce your palate to the flavors that are signature of this restaurant. They're delightful, cool in temperature, and hot on flavor. As soon as they arrive, your server will instruct you to give them a good toss, so that each noodle is covered with the light sauce, and penetrated with heat. By the end of this dish, you may feel your eyes begin to water just a little bit, but the sweetness from the oil, and the salty heat can only leave any diner hungry for more.
2) The Mala Lamb. This was actually my favorite dish of the day... perhaps because we've never ordered it before. A plate of thin-sliced, stir fried lamb arrives at the table upon a bed of lettuce. The only sauce present on the platter has become one with the slices of lamb, the product of what must be an incredibly hot wok. Each slice is covered with a sauce that is sweet, and salty. It has caramelized on each bit of the lamb, and the heat arrives as you chew through a slight crunch from the sugared sauce, but the delightful soft, savory inner bit of each piece of meat. While spicy, sticky, and sweet, I'd also venture to say that the meat is actually quite lean, and we easily polished off the entire dish.
3) The Ma Po Tofu. Midway through the lamb-fest, the tofu dish arrived. When ordering this dish, unless you are a strict vegetarian, I advise you to ask for the Ma Po Tofu with pork. Silken tofu and ground pork will arrive, drowning in the silky, oily, numbingly hot sauce. Now, each time that I say numbingly hot, I don't mean that you won't be able to taste anything. You will, in fact, be able to taste all the distinct flavors. There's a little bit of a tomato (though I don't think it actually has tomatoes), umami quality to this dish. It's a spoon full of the tofu and pork, poured over a little bit of rice. It's salty, and it's porky, and then there's the smooth tofu, the spice and high from all those peppercorns. I am without words to properly describe how delicious ma po tofu can be, but this is all experienced in an "aha" moment for every first timer that arrives at Sichuan
Yeah, I know that I'll be destined to spend some quality time at the john later this evening. But it was so worth it. Unexpected greatness in suburbs is something to stand and recognize. A road trip to Sichuan Gourmet, despite any traffic you may experience, will always have a huge, spicy payoff.

Sichuan Gourmet
502 Boston Street
Billerica, MA 01821

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