One of China’s most ubiquitous culinary exports, Sichuan cuisine is famous for the 麻辣, or málà (mouth-numbing spice), that comes in the form of a peppercorn (花椒, huā jiāo). Prompting a tingling sensation that has been likened to licking a nine-volt battery, the lemony husk is tossed into dishes with dried chili peppers, and never more skillfully than at Yu Xin.
Too often, Sichuan restaurants sprinkle in dried chilies and peppercorns willy-nilly, leaving your tongue too numb to enjoy the subtle flavors resonating underneath the onslaught of spice. Yu Xin’s approach is more subtle, although it still provides enough of a burn to incur sweat stains.
The restaurant has been tingling palates since 1993, when its first outlet opened in Beijing. Yu Xin now has locations in three different cities – including two in Shanghai, both located inconspicuously in malls – and continues to bring in its peppercorns from the fiery municipality of Chongqing in Sichuan province. Word is out among the locals, and although the Yu Xin flagship branch on Chengdu Lu takes up the entire third floor of a forgotten, dilapidated mall, there are always long lines, which are only exacerbated by their no-reservations-after-6-p.m. policy. But the wait is worth it.
As at most Chinese restaurants, you’ll want to start out with the cold dishes; boiled chicken covered in scallions (葱油鸡, cōngyóujī) and raw lettuce drizzled with sesame paste (麻酱凤尾, májiàng fèngwěi) are neutral options to balance out the spice of the meal. Keep them on the table for quick cooling bites to tame the blaze, which should be kindled with Sichuan-style mung bean noodles (川北凉粉, liángfěn). These thick, square, cold noodles are smothered in piquant peppercorn and chili oil sauce, then sprinkled with green onions and white sesame seeds for a fresh crunch. A Sichuan staple, Yu Xin’s mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐, mápódòufu) takes silky chunks of fresh tofu and stir-fries it with chilies and a hefty dollop of black bean paste. Order a bowl of rice on the side to sop up all the spicy-savory flavors.
But all that is just a lead-up to the dish for which Yu Xin is most famous: water-boiled fish (水煮魚, shǔizhǔyú). The dish is so popular that it’s been recommended by Chinese users on Dianping.com (the Mandarin version of Yelp!) almost 9,000 times, meaning that over half the people who have written reviews of Yu Xin have ranked it as one of the restaurant’s top dishes. Now that’s advice you’d be a fool not to take.
In the traditional version of this dish, catfish fillets and bean sprouts are fast-poached in water, then combined with dried chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, green onions and garlic in vegetable oil that is heated until it smokes, melding all the ingredients into one fiery pit of flavor. At Yu Xin, a porcelain bowl of cooling oil arrives on every table with a dense red layer of dried chilies and peppercorns interspersed with the occasional sprig of cilantro, strip of cucumber or fatty white chunk of (almost) boneless fillets. Wait staff skim off the inedible chilies, revealing bits of green onions, beansprouts and an entire fish sliced into bite-sized pieces below. Like most everything else at Yu Xin, it’s a dish few can remain numb to.