The Global Table: With chef who cooked for China's top leaders, Sichuan Chili sizzles in Cincinnati

EVENDALE, Ohio - Each Thursday, our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.

Sichuan Chili

Chef Qi Zhao in the Sichuan Chili kitchen

Where: 10400 Reading Rd., Suite 205B, Cincinnati
Facebook: Sichuan Chili
Food: Authentic Sichuan cuisine
Prices: Entrees $8.99 - $19.99

Signature dishes

There's a place in Evendale that can put a little pep in your step if you feel your restaurant mainstays are getting a little stale. Pull up a chair at Sichuan Chili, and you’ll likely get a jumpstart to remember.

The food here is unapologetically spicy, and explosively flavorful. Sichuan cuisine, notorious for its liberal use of chili peppers, is proudly served.

The restaurant offers two menus: Authentic and “regular.”  Unless you’re feeling particularly fragile, bypass the “regular” menu, and make a beeline for the authentic one.

If you insist, the "regular" menu offers rudimentary dishes that meet Americanized expectations of Chinese food.  You'll find familiar dishes like sweet and sour shrimp, kung pao chicken, and egg foo young on this menu. The food is sauce-driven, and generally leans on the sweet side.  The sauces – white, brown, Sichuan, and kung pao – play well with any variety of protein or vegetables.

The sizzle, however, is on the authentic menu. You'll notice right away a blur of red asterisks, ranging from one to three, alerting the diner to the spiciness of the food. 

Fish filet stir-fry in chili oil (see picture above) is a famous Sichuan dish, wildly popular with the restaurant's discerning clientele. The fish is boiled in a bold scallion and garlic soupy sauce, topped off with hot oil, and infused with dried chili pepper and Sichuan peppercorn. It's a visual feast of colors, and the flavors that follow are just as bold, savory and spicy.

Sichuan tengjiao fish filet uses green Sichuan peppercorn and pickled vegetables instead. The aromatics--scallions and garlic, together with the fish and pickled vegetables--send the flavor of this dish off the charts.

Sichuan shrimp (see picture above) is not actually on the menu, but ask and you'll be treated to a festival of textures and flavors. Shell-on shrimp that's been lightly robed in thin batter, takes a bath in the deep fryer. Garlic, ginger, and scallion give this dish the nose, while peanuts and crispy fried chili pepper further punctuate this shellfish classic.

Guai wei noodles (see picture below), whose name translates to "peculiar" flavor noodles, is a modest dish. It has an ever so slight vinegary waft, and embodies an unusual mix of sour, sweet and mildly spicy notes. 

For the gastronomical thrill seekers, mao xue wang awaits, with its stew of unconventional ingredients. Expect to find pork blood curd, chitterlings, and vegetables, with a liberal amount of chili cooked right in. Sliced roast duck may also be served with this dish. 

For the less daring, there are many amicable choices, such as ma po tofu--a dish of cubed tofu, immersed in a spicy bean sauce--and sizzling lamb, a hot plate of sizzling lamb morsels, adorned with chili pepper and bell pepper. 

Although chili peppers often steal the show in Sichuan cuisine, not all food is fiery hot. There are a number of dishes that tread more lightly. For example, the jellyfish and cucumber salad (see picture) is a relatively mild mix of jellyfish, cucumber, scallion and sesame oil.

Meet the owners

What do a Sichuan restaurant tucked away in an Evendale strip mall and anesthesiology research at the University of Cincinnati have in common? The brains of one man: Jun-Ming Zhang. 

Zhang, the director of anesthesiology research, also directs the operation at Sichuan Chili. He and his wife, Ai Lin (pictured above), and two other families collectively own the restaurant. Zhang and Lin head up the management of the enterprise and often serve as translators for the other owners.

Zhang is originally from Shandong, a coastal province in eastern China. He came to this country to further his medical career. A physician by profession, Zhang made a few stops--which included Yale University--before making the move to Cincinnati.

Ai Lin, a Sichuan native, arrived in New York in 2002 to further her accounting profession. In a modern-day fairy tale, Lin met Zhang online.

The couple's foray into the restaurant business began when Lin’s friend approached her with the idea of a restaurant partnership. The riend's uncle, Qi Zhao, who was the chef at Sichuan Bistro at that time, had been wanting to open his own restaurant.

“This was totally new for me. The only time I go to a restaurant is to eat,” Lin said. As risky as the restaurant business is, Lin also saw the unique opportunity of partnering with a proven Sichuan chef.

“Chef Qi Zhao actually has the highest ranking for Sichuan food in China. He once even cooked for

Deng Xiaoping,” Zhang noted. 

Qi Zhao first learned to cook as an eight-year-old and went to cooking school when he turned eighteen. 

"He can cook anything. If someone comes with a picture of food they had in China, our chef can figure it out and cook it,” Zhang noted.

Sichuan Chili opened on September 8, 2013. 

“We don’t want to open just another Chinese restaurant,” Zhang said. “We want to open the Sichuan restaurant.”

Cultural flavor

Chef Qi Zhao summed up Sichuan cuisine simply: Flavor. He went on to describe Sichuan cuisine as hot, spicy and numbing--thanks to the peppery beauty, Sichuan peppercorn (pictured below). It imparts a tingling and numbing sensation to the tongue.

“There are eight different styles of food in China, but Sichuan cuisine has the most variety of flavors,” Zhao added. “The flavors are different in every dish.”

Aside from the bewitching Sichuan peppercorns, another staple ingredient is dou ban jiang. It’s a spicy, funky-smelling, fermented paste of broad beans, which magically transforms into the most fragrant and flavorful product in high heat. 

“We use a lot of bean paste,” Lin said. The most famous bean paste comes from Pixian, a small county in Sichuan.

While hot and spicy food is served around the clock in Sichuan, there are other milder and lighter options, particularly in the morning.  

“People also eat cold cuts of cooked rabbit, duck, and chicken in the morning. It’s quick, and you don’t spend a lot of time preparing it,” Zhang said. 

By the way

If you ever set your tongue on fire from eating one too many spicy morsels, Zhang has some advice: Drink something sweet. 

"If you like hot and spicy food, but cannot tolerate it, have some soda or juice. The sweetness neutralizes the spiciness," he said. 

However, practice does make perfect. People can build a tolerance for hot and spicy food from repeated exposure.  Capsaicin, the compound in chili pepper that "burns,” gets picked up by specific receptors on the tongue. 

"The more you eat hot food, the TRPV1 channel that picks up capsaicin becomes desensitized over time. I’m a scientist and I study this," Zhang said.

(All photos by G. Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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