If I were a little apprehensive about trying Sichuan Impression, the first OC branch of the highly regarded San Gabriel Valley restaurant, it wasn’t because I don’t like spicy food; it’s because of my tendency to sweat profusely when eating it, so much so that rivulets of perspiration would gush down my face as though a dam broke at the top of my head. In the past, especially at Thai restaurants, there were instances when waiters would ask if I was okay, concerned that I may be suffering some sort of attack.
But this time, I came prepared. I brought an absorbent towel and warned my tablemates what would happen the instant anything spicy came within range. It didn’t take long. When the Leshan Bobo Chicken arrived—a pot of chilled red liquid with dozens of bamboo skewers sticking out of it as though porcupine quills—I was already blotting my forehead. As I told my friends, most of whom have never tried Sichuan food aside from the occasional kung pao chicken, the dish was fondue crossed with Russian roulette: You don’t know what will be skewered at the end of your stick until you lift it out of the soup.
The two girls scored pieces of shrimp. My other friends found a plump chicken heart and beef tripe. I fished out a wiggly piece of kelp. But what hid between its folds set off alarm bells in my brain and told it to turn on the sprinklers at full blast. The culprit was a lone piece of Sichuan peppercorn, hardly the size of a shotgun pellet. Yet when I bit into it, it released an electric jolt so shocking it short-circuited my entire mouth. My tongue immediately turned numb—a weird paralysis analogous to it being snapped by a rubber band, stung by a bee and injected with a dental anesthetic. At that exact moment, a tingly sensation also rose up near ground zero, a chill not unlike the kind you get after a Listerine breath strip.
Two other friends experienced their first Sichuan peppercorn the same time I did, and it was messing with them. A tablemate reached for her water, but she found that no matter how much she chugged, it had no effect. In fact, what the peppercorns did was to overload the pain receptors; even the spiciest dishes that came afterward felt kind of tame. There were thick-skinned wontons slicked with chile oil, as well as tangles of cold spaghetti-like noodles dressed with crushed peanuts and a sluicing of more chile oil. Neither registered a Scoville’s blip and actually tasted dull when I slurped them.
Yet, despite the orders of cold cucumber pickle spears and the Taiwanese lettuce I asked to be stir-fried with nothing but garlic, I remained in a constant state of hurt. The water refills weren’t coming nearly fast enough, which I was sure was a breach of Geneva Conventions.
But it may say something about the flavor of the cumin-crusted lamb that we didn’t mind it was only compounding the fire burning our mouths. One of the best dishes of the night, it was presented as a dry stir-fry with a mess of cilantro and an excess of dried red chiles, each chewy morsel skewered on toothpicks and caked with cumin and chili powder—a dish that all the great Sichuan restaurants seem to serve as a staple, even though its origins are actually Uyghur.
There was also an excellent but oily twice-cooked pork dish, with tender slices of pork belly wok-tossed with what the menu calls “garlic bolt,” the stem of the plant that tastes akin to leeks. Instead of kung pao, we opted for the Dry-Fried Farm Chicken whose pieces were battered and deep-fried to a light crisp and served over parchment paper with dried chile pods and slivers of crunchy celery.
And then there was the dish that made me gasp for air more than any other: the Boiled Fish With Rattan Pepper. Since it had one chile pepper icon on the menu instead of two, I thought it would be milder than the Boiled Fish With Chili Sauce. But it turned out to be the hottest dish of them all. The snowy fluffs of fish were essentially floating in the soup, which was the equivalent of hydrochloric acid—a fact I only realized after I gulped down half a bowl of the innocent-looking yellow broth in one go.
After dinner, we stood around outside, letting the cool breeze soothe our flushed faces. But as I was wringing out the sweat from my terry-cloth towel and felt my tongue return to normal, the endorphins kicked in; I wanted to go back and do it all over again. Next time, though, I’ll have to bring an entire gym bag of towels.
Sichuan Impression, 13816 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 505-9070. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$60, food only. Beer and wine.