Boston: Steamed Beef, Szechuan Style
Like spicy food? Me too, which is why I, and a group of my Boston friends and coworkers, regularly trek out to Malden to feed our fire cravings.
Why Malden? At least, that was my reaction a few years back when word started spreading that those seeking serious Chinese food should pass on the dozens of restaurants in downtown Boston—Chinatown included—and head north about seven miles to Fuloon. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. I'm not sure what an "authentic" Chinese restaurant would have looked like to me, but this one—complete with a goldfish tank, elevator music, and an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet—didn't look especially convincing.
Until we read the menu.
Like many suburban Chinese joints, it's a multi-page document that covers a broad footprint of the country's cuisine, from Mandarin, to Cantonese, to Szechuan, to Hunan.
But most of the must-have dishes are concentrated on the first two sections (Most Popular in Fuloon and Chef's Specialties): slippery, chewy starch noodles with shredded pork and julienned vegetables; a crispy savory pancake stuffed with shredded pork (think double-crust scallion pancake for carnivores); silken bean curd with "special sauce"; crisp-skinned tea-smoked duck; and steamed beef, Szechuan-style, to name a few.
This last dish—Steamed Beef, Szechuan Style ($10.95)—is probably the one we order most consistently, though if you're a first-timer (and didn't get a chance to browse through the corresponding photo album menu), it's easy to misunderstand what you've just ordered.
The word "steamed" is what'll trip you up; in this particular context, it carries none of the usual health-minded, bland diet implications that it does on a traditional American menu.
Instead, what you get is a vat of fiery chili oil (there might be a splash of water in there too), brimming with dried hot chiles; numbing Szechuan peppercorns; silky, super-tender slices of beef; and crisp green cabbages leaves. After the first few bites, a few muffled coughs can be heard around the table, and more than one person can usually be caught mopping sweat from his or her brow. We've even taken to renaming the dish: Meet the Fiery Bowl of Death.
That said, the heat level does tend to ebb and flow (heat-seekers should be sure to ask for it spicy), and most nights the dish is more intimidating than it looks. But it's definitely not for the faint of heart—or those particularly prone to heartburn—and should always be accompanied by a big, merciful bowl of steamed white rice ("steamed" meaning gently cooked in water).
P.S. Other favorite dishes include: Wok-Baked Beef, Kuenming Duck, Szechuan Sliced Pork with Green Hot Pepper, Bang Bang Chicken, Won Ton with Special Hot Sauce, Mandarin Cabbage with Spicy and Sour, Kan Shue String Beans, Pork with Bean Curd Leaf, and the MaPo Tofu (not listed on the menu). Anyone have other suggestions to add?
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and works as the associate features editor for Cook's Illustrated magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Her top five foods include: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.