Spiced is one of three Asian restaurants in the Pacific Village Center, a small strip mall across the street from the giant Crossroads shopping center in Bellevue. On its sign, Spiced makes the direct claim that it serves “truly” Chinese cuisine.
Words like truly, genuine, authentic or real get thrown up on a lot of restaurant signs, as if most of us even know what real Southern cooking or authentic Mediterranean food tastes like. Usually, these words are just restaurant-biz rhetoric and not the indication of something exotic, although once in a while “truly” does in fact mean truly.
There was a time (in most of our lifetimes perhaps) that any kind of Chinese food or Asian food might have seemed an exotic find in a Bellevue shopping center. Now there are the three restaurants in the Pacific Village Center, including Sushi Me and the Than Brothers pho restaurant. Sushi Me serves sushi kaiten style, on conveyor belts, an increasingly popular format of fast-food sushi that took hold in Japan in the 1980s and 90s and spread to Australia, South Korea, and North America. The clientele at Sushi Me one recent evening was a good slice of America, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, a sign of how quickly and thoroughly sushi has assimilated into American culture.
The demographic at Spiced, at least for now, seems markedly different. It is not a restaurant necessarily aiming for the largest common denominator. And although it serves beef with broccoli and chicken in black bean sauce, ordering them or dishes like them would be almost a shame. The tried-and-true conventions of American-Chinese restaurant menus are not what make Spiced special, and I do not see any of them on the tables of the dining room.
The inside of Spiced is much more homogenous than the inside of Sushi Me. A distinct majority of Asian faces are dining happily at Spiced, chatting mostly, it sounds like, in Mandarin, and presiding over platters of elegantly prepared food colored bright red by chili peppers. Spiced specializes in the cuisine of Sichuan province in south-central China, known for its fragrant and spicy food.
At the front of the restaurant is a deli case containing a dozen or so trays of cold appetizers like preserved string beans, sour seaweed, glazed peanuts and anchovies, salted egg, sliced pig ear, marinated pig tongue, and spicy chicken gizzards. For $5.99, customers get their pick of any three. Almost every table has a plate of these cold condiments, a common way to start a Sichuan meal, similar to the Korean practice of eating cold appetizers called ban chan or pan chan with every meal. Korean ban chan is served in smaller portions and in more variety (and are automatically served at no additional cost in restaurants), but the idea is the same, to extend a meal with an assortment of small dishes high in flavor, texture, and visual appeal.
Perhaps, this restaurant, as its sign claims, is “truly” Chinese cuisine. The chili pepper is the star at Spiced: pickled chilis, dried chilis, fresh chilis, chilis fermented with soy beans. They are deep fried, sautéed, boiled, tossed, infused with most of the items on the menu. There is no two- or three-star system of gauging spiciness at Spiced. A dish is either hot or it’s not and most are. The menu does make a distinction, however, between spicy hot and “numbing” hot, the sensation caused by the Sichuan peppercorn.
The Sichuan peppercorn does not burn, but rather numbs the way clove does. It imparts a highly floral flavor and leaves a slightly metallic aftertaste as it releases a numbing warmth in your mouth. It partly soothes the burn of hot chilies, so the two complement each other when used in a single dish.
The menu at Spiced is extensive and challenging. You could make a week out of trying just the noodle soups, and then devote the next month to hot pots, then spend the summer entertaining all the dishes made with chili bean paste. The page of house specials also deserves an entire month of eating, with intriguing dishes like lamb ribs, braised eel, and oxtail.
But if I had one goal in mind the first time I visited, it was to eat the perfect plate of ma po tofu, the staple of Chinese restaurant menus that over time has devolved into something sweet and bland and pretty awful, its sauce dark brown in color, sprinkled with frozen peas. You can find ma po tofu in just about any Chinese restaurant in every shopping mall and airport in America. So, while I generally argue against ordering from the canon of American Chinese cooking, I would argue for an exception in this one case.
The ma po tofu at Spiced is made of irregular cubes of soft tofu tossed in an oily brew of fermented chilies, soybeans and Sichuan peppercorns, which give the dish an appealing discordant note and a distinct aroma. It is a simple dish focused on a few ingredients, the tofu acting as a graceful vessel for the chili paste which is ultimately the point of this dish. There are no frozen peas, no minced pork, no brown sauce to muddy the beauty of this dish.
Until recently, it would have been nearly impossible to find the magic ingredient of this dish, the Sichuan peppercorns. For years, they were banned in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture. Sichuan peppercorns are not actually peppercorns but the fruit of a prickly ash tree, a type of citrus tree. The Chinese variety of prickly ash was said to carry a pest harmful to orchards in the U.S., and so for years were not allowed to be imported into the country. About five years ago, officials deemed Sichuan peppercorns safe if they were lightly roasted before they were shipped. Now they are widely available and, at Spiced, used liberally.
Spiced is not beyond all expectations of American-Chinese restaurants. For example, it serves General Tso’s chicken, the candy sweet, deep-fried standard of Chinese food buffets and takeout joints. General Tso is, or was, a real person (Zuo Zongtang, a military leader and statesman), and also the name of an ambient metal band formed in the 1970s.
Although General Tso’s chicken is not a dish eaten in China, Spiced proved that you can serve it and also be truly Chinese.
If you go: Spiced, 1299 156th Avenue NE, Suite 135 in Bellevue, (425) 644-8888, www.SpicedOnline.com. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closed 3-5 p.m.), Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (closed 3-5 p.m.), Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.