Once you’ve tasted the searing, numbing, lemony-metallic flavor of Sichuan peppercorns, you’ll never forget them. As one commentator wryly observed, “It felt like my tongue died.” Beginning in 1936, these shrub buds (they’re not really peppercorns) were illegalized in the U.S., not as a result of any narcotic effect, but because they sometimes harbor the citrus canker bacterium. The prohibition was loosened in 2002, and lifted in 2005, but the bud retains vestiges of its outlaw status. Appreciation turns to craving, and craving to downright addiction, and Sichuan peppercorn junkies like me always need a sure place to get their dose.
The best fix in town is currently found on Roosevelt Avenue west of downtown Flushing, hilariously located across the street from projects known as the Bland Houses. In a tawdry bi-level strip mall next to Golden Golden Szechuan stands newcomer Xiao La Jiao (English name: Little Pepper). Wearing a jaunty sash like a beauty-contest winner, the logo is a grinning red chile. A trip down steep concrete steps reveals a subterranean dining room barely changed from the days when it was the original Spicy & Tasty, though the side rooms filled with poker players now yawn empty. I kinda miss them.
The first dish to arrive was arresting and, at $2, a wonderful bargain: “soft bean curd in spicy sauce” ($2), a fist-size gob of soft homemade tofu sluiced with red chile oil, dusted with crushed huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns), and topped with toasted peanuts. We followed our usual habit of ordering things we’d never seen before, and tops in that category was the unappetizing-sounding dried rabbit ($9.95). The entire animal comes dissected with an anatomist’s accuracy, the flesh a shade redder than tandoori chicken. Luckily, the bunny wasn’t dry in the least, and the subtle smoked flavor was enhanced by dipping each bite-size piece in the accompanying saucer of salt and toasted huajiao.
There are three versions of the Sichuan standard dan dan noodles (all $3.75). Two employ, respectively, minced beef and pork, but the one I’ll never forget features largish hunks of stewed beef in a sauce topped with a raft of—you guessed it—Sichuan peppercorns. With this type of numbing assault, you’d think we were ready for something less invasive, and we were. A dish of pork intestines with pickled Sichuan vegetables proved the perfect fire extinguisher, more sour than spicy. Mild heat was provided by tiny pickled peppers that looked like the restaurant’s giddy mascot, and these peppers recurred in the deliriously good “crust of cooked rice with pork” ($9.95)—brittle cakes made with absorbent puffed-rice grains soaking in tart sauce. My friend Zak pointed out that the sauce had been emulsified, French-style. “I’ve never seen that in a Chinese restaurant before,” he added.
Little Pepper’s chef—who came out of the kitchen to find out what weirdos were ordering this strange combo of dishes—does wonders with eel and frog, the last of which is notable for its soft, fish-like flesh. Try “bullfrog with Szechuan pickled hot pepper” ($11.95). The best thing on the menu, though, is a dish that dry-cooks swatches of lamb with a coating of cumin and Sichuan peppercorns, three ingredients and one technique inconceivable in southern Chinese restaurants.
Hey, Little Pepper is so good, I’m thinking of moving into the Bland Houses.