Within minutes, I felt the sweat beading up on my brow. Twenty minutes in, my sinuses began to eradicate themselves of all fluids. I was a sweaty, sniveling mess…but the smile on my face was apparent. We were now tit-deep in the spicy broth of Sichuan Ma La cuisine.
For stop #3, we made our way to the College Point neighborhood of Queens to Little Pepper. We were not there for the mismatched paintings on the walls— seemingly acquired at random from the $1 sale bin at the flea market. We were not there for the basic table and chairs acquired from the back recesses of the Bowery restaurant supply stores. We were not there for the Chinese television program being shown above the register. Nope. We were there for the spice. We were there to send our palate through the flavor gauntlet, to hit it with so much heat we wouldn’t whistle for weeks. And we weren’t disappointed…
Little Pepper is bright, clean and (according to long-term fans), an upgrade from its previous location in a dingy Flushing basement. But once the food hits your mouth, the atmosphere fades away and you’re focusing only on the food. Stay on target! Stay on target! Because this food is spicy. Known as Ma La, this is Sichuan-peppercorn crack rock for heat (and flavor) junkies. But don’t be frightened, my friend. This is the not the kind of heat akin to a wildfire hitting your mouth as soon as the first bite hits. You will not be immediately reaching for a cool glass of milk. Nope. It’s a different sensation; it creeps up on you. Smooth, slow and steady. Like a peppercorn/chile seduction leading to a fierce romp.
First glance of the menu, our eyes immediately moved to the “Griddle” section, which included two items that immediately stood out: Spicy Intestines and Spicy Crab. While the former seemed intriguing….well, sort of…we opted for the crabs. And for just under $30, a massive, piping hot pot of crabs hit the table. There, in a spicy broth, along with what must have been pounds of lotus root and shreds of peppers, were the crabs. Simply hacked in half, they were served fully shelled and numbered between eight and ten in total. When I asked the waiter the best way to eat them, he replied, “Americans are usually squeamish about bones and shells. I guess you just have to use your hands.” From then on, it was a melee of hands and faces covered in spicy juice.
No joke, it was the messiest meal of my life (other than my infant days where I would just dive face-first into whatever appeared in front of my never-satiated gob). But you gotta give over to it. As there is only a tiny amount of meat in each crab, you got to get fierce. And there are no bibs or shell crackers to be seen. It’s man-on-crab action. Legs are torn from torso. Fingers dig through shell like a pig roots in dirt. For the last ten minutes, my dining companions threw in the towel and simply watched me, stunned. I had given over. My sinuses were running like a faucet, my eyes burned with glee, I was going for it. In heat heaven.
And as Budweiser was the only beer option available, I embraced the cool bottles of salvation like a baby does its teet. The waiter couldn’t bring them fast enough. Come on, man! I’m dying over here! Look at me. I’m a sweaty mess, now get me my bottle of mass-produced swill! And stat! I’ve never been so excited to see that white and red label coming my way…
While the crab was the dish I will remember most, we also had some other tasty dishes. Here’s the final line up:
- Sliced Pork Belly with Chili-Garlic sauce
- Steamed Chicken with Special Chili sauce
- Spicy Cold Noodle
- Griddle Cooked Crab
- Beef with Hot and Spicy sauce with Cumin