Dr. John and Our Critic Embark on a Chile-Pepper Eating Contest
Three years ago, Dr. John and I went toe-to-toe eating goat eyeballs at a restaurant in Flushing. He won the contest by eating two more than I did. ("What did they taste like?" asked Dr. John's friend Lisa. "Like eating Jell-O in a small balloon," I replied.) So, when I heard that the dapper New Orleans musician and composer once known as the Night Tripper was back in town chilling prior to the June 3 release of his new album, The City That Care Forgot, I asked a mutual friend to call and arrange a rematch.
He'd eaten a surfeit of eyes in the interim, so we decided to switch the contest to chile peppers. And the venue would be the spiciest restaurant I could think of: Grand Sichuan House in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I knew from several previous visits that the fearsome pepper onslaught would include dried red chilies, scarlet-chile oil, fresh green chilies, and—most formidable of all—Sichuan peppercorns, the berries of a shrub that induce a scary metallic numbness in the mouth, like a Novocain overdose. I secretly hoped the peppercorns would throw my adversary off a bit and give me the advantage.
The restaurant's awning glowed yellow as we pulled up in Scooter's blue Honda just as the sun was setting. As usual, Dr. John looked every bit the boulevardier in a trim black beret, leather coat, striped tunic, and carved African cane dangling gris-gris, the talismans of voodoo magic. The joint was nearly empty, but the staff was welcoming and cheery. Picking up the menu, I plotted the sequence of dishes so that the food would get hotter and hotter as the meal progressed.
We started out slow with sliced conch in "wild peppery sauce" ($6.95)—an almost mild toss of the sea creature pulled from a pink-lipped shell. The slippery concoction offered just a trace of powdered Sichuan peppercorns, causing Lisa to ask: "What 'sup with my mouth?" Next, we downed a bowl of Chengdu dumplings ($3.95), pork-stuffed half-moons laved in chile oil that had brown-bean sauce swirling in it like mud in the Mississippi River Delta.
We upped the ante with one of the restaurant's zingers—sliced lamb with cumin sauce ($14.95), a julienne of tender morsels scattered with cumin seeds, offering a stealthy underlying presence of crushed Sichuan peppercorns. "This dish is slammin'," Dr. John noted as he coolly knocked back forkfuls. Before we could finish, a more formidable dish arrived, Ching Qing chicken, named after a city that lies east of Sichuan. We gasped when we first glimpsed it, because it was a mass of singed red chilies. We soon learned, however, that the dish was all about the concentrated chicken fragments hidden among the chilies. Though I was sweating bullets, Dr. John remained composed throughout, regaling us with tales of long-gone friends, including Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, then relating his bayou recipe for wild-duck-and-goose gumbo.
Assisting us in our forward progress through the meal were an array of mild dishes that we'd assembled to eat between pepper-laden bites. We had a stir-fry of fresh loofah ($8.95), glinting a mellow shade of green; hunks of orange pumpkin heavily flavored with fresh ginger and green onions; and a knockout plate of tea-smoked duck with a sticky hoisin dipping sauce.
I was hobbled by hiccups as we began spooning up mung bean noodle with spicy pepper sauce ($4.55, on the carry-out menu only), a famous dish slicked with chile oil and heavily freighted with whole peppercorns and ground pork, sometimes known as "ants climbing a log." But Dr. John was showing no signs of distress; his wool beret was kept firmly planted on his head. Between the arrival of dishes, he recounted his early years in the Big Easy, partly raised by a Sicilian great-aunt who took him around the city's many markets as she shopped for groceries: "Since the 1850s, the Vieux Carré was filled not with Frenchmen, but with Sicilians," he observed. "Hence Central Grocery's muffaletta sandwich," I chimed in. "There was a big debate back then," he went on, "about whether Sicilians should be considered black or not."
Finally, the hottest dish of the evening arrived in a big white bowl: "Chengdu spicy and aromatic fish" ($16.95). Fishing in the seething broth, we hooked chile-flecked pieces of fish, wads of Napa cabbage, and wobbly bean-curd cubes. But I was flagging, both in appetite and in my appreciation of the insane levels of hotness. Throwing down my chopsticks as he happily continued eating, I muttered: "You win round two, Dr. John."
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