"You," the bespectacled Chinese waiter at Little Pepper says, pointing at my French friend Bati, “are the first white person to order that. Are you sure?”
Bati is a fearless eater who favors black, crumbly blood sausage and sucking gelatinous marrow from bones with a lusty slurp. Tonight, though, he’s sending us sailing into dubiously tasty territory. I bite my lip.Yes, is Bati sure?
Bati thumps shut his menu. “Bring on the duck tongues,” he proclaims, commencing another lip-blistering adventure with dangerously delicious Sichuan cuisine. The subset of Chinese cookery centers on volcanic peppers conjoined with fragrant, Novocain-esque Sichuan peppercorns: mala, the coupling is called, loosely translated to “hot and numbing”—and, might I add, “crazy-making.”
I first ate Sichuan six years ago, the day after a beach birthday bash. Skull throbbing and lobster-schnozzed, three friends and I ventured to Flushing’s Spicy & Tasty (39-07 Prince St. at 39th St., Queens, 718-359-1601).
Inside the flashy canteen, we gorged on coils of porky dan-dan noodles; fatty, twicecooked swine belly and vellum-thin wontons, everything drowning beneath blood-red chili oil dotted with leather-hued peppercorns.
One after another, my dining companions dropped their chopsticks. Their eyes pinballed wildly, sweat rivulets running down furrowed brows.Then my body began buzzing, the intramuscular hum diffusing from tongue to lips to fingertips to feet.
“Does anyone feel funny?” I asked, my voice pinched and frightful.
“I’m buzzing,” one friend said. “And not happily.” I assumed I was careening toward a hyperventilating panic attack, a common affliction in my early twenties. “Waiter, waiter,” I summoned our server. “Why do we feel…strange? What did we eat?”
Following a century of Chinese waiters’ leads, he feigned temporary English amnesia and bustled off. We chugged water, futilely flushing out unseen toxins, the buzzing like bees trapped beneath our skin. In increments, the insect sensation ebbed, leaving us as drained as a bad drug trip.
Like countless psychoactive substances, I learned to love Sichuan peppercorns. In moderation, they’re an addictive additive, a tingling trip off the flavor spectrum’s deep end. Every month, I get my fill in Flushing, where tonight I’ve Shanghaied a crew into coming to Little Pepper (133-43 Roosevelt Ave. betw. Prince St. & College Point Blvd., Queens, 718-939-7788). Little Pepper is but a basement decorated with dangling fake chiles, stock nature photographs and a fuzzy TV tuned to Chinese news broadcasts and game shows. It’s as romantic as a dentist’s office—good taste resides not in the décor but rather the fare.
“This better be excellent,” Bati says. “You’ve dragged us halfway across the city.”
“Josh isn’t wrong—often,” my girlfriend says. She remains bitter about the eve I escorted her to a Malaysian restaurant serving fishy curries as rank as decomposing corpses.
“Trust me,” I say, words best accompanied by a blindfold. “The food’s here.” Like infants placated by bottle or breast, my compatriots are calmed by a steaming platter of oil-slicked tofu, each unctuous bite numbing gums faster than fine Colombian snow. Equally incendiary is the mapo tofu, bean curd and ground pork swimming in a blazing-red pool.
“Tsingtaos, please,” I order, our mouths on three-alarm fire.
Less fiery, but no less flavorful is the tender, vampire-murdering, garlic-smothered eggplant.The Chinese sausage with celery is a bland disappointment, more greasy than flavorful, but a foil bundle filled with chiliand cumin-rubbed lamb sprinkled with cilantro redeems our dining faith.The dish is gamy and fragrant, scorching and aromatic, and altogether habit-forming. “Lay off my mutton crack,” I mutter, snaring a chunk amid snapping chopsticks, snatching fingers.
Minutes later, the greedy diners drop their utensils, their eyes gravitating toward the newly arrived centerpiece: a field of red peppers, interspersed with elongated, finger-like duck tongues glistening beneath the oily sheen. Seemingly, an extended family of fowl—second cousins included—uttered their last quacks for our repast.
“What are you waiting for?” Bati says, inserting several tongues between his canines, mimicking a postapocalyptic vampire.
Now, the rub with tripe, kidneys and other offal eats is that the initial jolt of ordering excitement—bizarre foods in my belly!—often fades before the offbeat goodies arrive.What seemed innocuously thrilling on the printed page is often downright unappealing on a plate. Do you chicken out? Duck the dish?
At least it’s not pork bung, I think, tossing the thick, chewy tongue onto mine and chomping, gnawing— crunching? The muscle is cut with hard cartilage, forcing me to suck off flesh like it’s a funky chicken wing. The tongue’s tasty but too much work, the dining equivalent of dating a model.
“All yours, Bati,” I say, pushing the plate to the famished Frenchman.
“More good meat for me,” he says— reaching for fifths and soon ninths—as the waiter watches with an approving eye.