Does the Valley’s most hyped Chinese eatery deliver the goods? Yes, but order wisely.
Foodies far and wide have been singing the praises of Original Cuisine – a Sichuan restaurant in Mesa – for months now, claiming that this offshoot of a popular California restaurant is as authentic and delicious as Sichuan cuisine gets in the U.S. of A.
Disappointingly, about 30 minutes into my first visit, I’m just not feeling it. The array of dishes we ordered strike me as heavy, greasy and one-note, and I don’t feel the slightest hint of rapture. What’s wrong with me? Am I just an unadventurous rube, or do I simply have an aversion to densely layered, in-your-face seasoning when it comes to Asian food? I lived in Japan for a time, and the refined, subtle phrasings of its cuisine definitely shaped my preferences.
After dinner, my hot-sauce-swigging sweetheart, who liked everything better than I did, posits this argument: Does my distaste for seriously spicy food negate the fact that it might be well-crafted? He’s got me there.
Determined to be fair, I return for a second go, and this time, I’m smarter about my choices. For one thing, I order steamed rice – duh! – as well as a few milder dishes to counterbalance the heat, which isn’t an easy task given that at least 90 percent of the 60-some-odd menu items have a red chili symbol beside them. But my strategy pays off. I walk away from that stupendously successful lunch liking Original Cuisine and seriously loving a few of the dishes.
Upon tasting the pan-fried rice ball appetizers, I know I will daydream about them for weeks – probably because their glutinous texture recalls two things I love: Japanese mochi and Chinese rice flour dumplings used for dim sum. Overlaid with a stir-fry of sweet peppers, they offer up a trace of chili heat and three textures in one luscious bite: wispy crispiness, gummy chew and, finally, a creamy center of sweet, nutty black sesame paste. Fabulous!
I’m just as crazy about tomato and egg noodle soup, a restrained dish that belies its south-central Chinese origins, combining egg noodles and a perfect omelet, both afloat in light but vivid tomato broth. Lo mein noodles with green onion sauce (a richer, more satisfying dish than its name suggests) are equally subtle but effective, while crisp-tender bok choy, enveloped in clear but pungent garlic sauce, offers a bittersweet counterpoint to all the hot stuff.
And then there’s mapo tofu, a Sichuan classic I’ve always loved, but never this much. Original’s version – silky cubes of tofu bathed in a sensational, almost gravy-like sauce of chili oil, doubanjiang (spicy fermented bean paste), Sichuan peppercorns, garlic and ginger – is absolutely off the charts, releasing subtle sweetness and layers of controlled heat.
Deep-fried chicken with chilies – crunchy nubbins of chicken tossed in a wok with garlic, green onion and a formidable flurry of red chilies – is a one-two punch of ma la (the Sichuan flavor profile combining dried red chilies and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorn) and is shockingly good. I didn’t expect to love it, given my lukewarm reaction to a handful of dishes from my first visit, including a cold starter of pig ears in chili oil (one-dimensional flavor and too much cartilage crunch for me) and a whole catfish entree, fried and braised in a scorching pepper sauce. Somewhere between the pig ears and catfish, my palate shut down, overwhelmed by ma la.
The upshot: I think Original Cuisine can be fantastic – even to the most pantywaist of palates. Just order judiciously and keep the fire extinguisher handy.
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