Fuloon in Malden, MA, is probably Boston's most well-known best-kept secret. That is, every food writer I know and all of the serious chili-heads that populate message boards like chowhound speak of its crispy dry-fried chicken with chilies in hushed tones, or get a glint of excitement in their eye at the mere mention of their awesomely hot-and-numbing ma po dofu. There's certainly no shortage of praise heaped on it—at least by that small circle that's in the know.
On the other hand, there's another group that dines at Fuloon. The ones that pull its average Yelp! rating all the way down to 3 1/2 stars. The ones that complain of over-sauced General Tso's, or soggy spring rolls in the buffet. And I don't blame them in the least. The lunch buffet is not worth a damn, even by shopping mall food court standards. But how are folks supposed to know that?
Thus is the fate of inexpensive suburban Chinese restaurants specializing in regional fare: the chef's true specialties—the ones that really deserve to be tasted—are left foundering in a sea of spare ribs, orange chicken, and sweet and sour sauce.
My goal is to change that in whatever small way I can, starting by telling you, dear Serious Eaters, what you should be trying when you head out that way. (And I know you will be heading there, right?)
There are many more great things on the menu (try and stick with things off the Chef's Specialties and Northern/Sichuan sections), but here are a dozen of my favorites to get your started. Check out photos of each dish here.
#1. Hot Diced Chicken Szechuan Style ($11.95)
A crunchier, spicier version of kung pao chicken, this version is made with breaded chunks of juicy, fatty dark meat, deep fried until ultra-crisp, and tossed in a dry mixture of sichuan peppercorns, roasted chilis, sugar, and an assortment of aromatics. It's like the popcorn chicken of your youth, assuming you spent your youth with your Chinese grandmother in the fiery depths of Mount Doom.
#2. Steamed Beef, Szechuan Style ($11.95)
The mother of all chili dishes, it's a 12-inch diameter bowl that is literally covered edge-to-edge in chili oil and chopped dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns. That said, it's not quite as hot as it seems. The whole point is to fish out the slick and tender slices of steamed beef underneath. As you pull them through the chili oil, a thin fragrant coating forms around the meat, gently flavoring it and adding a bit of spice. The tender-crisp cabbage comes out a little hotter—it's got more nooks and crannies for the chilis to stick to. For more on the beef, check out our review here.
#3. Noodles with Spicy Szechuan Sauce ($6.50)
One of the finest renditions of Dan Dan Mien I've had, with flavorful chunks of pork and plenty of pickled mustard root piled on top of just-cooked noodles. Toss it all together to let the sesame-flavored chili oil coat the strands before shoveling it down.
#4. Szechuan Sliced Pork with Green Hot Pepper ($9.95)
Very similar to the classic Sichuan Double-Cooked Pork, this version uses slightly leaner cuts of pork with a sauce that's a bit punchier with the vinegar and sugar. The tender stir-fried pork and cabbage get plenty of heat from the plentiful long green peppers, which boast the vegetable bitterness of a green bell pepper, but a much finer texture.
#5. Fresh Fish Filets in Special Hot Sauce ($24.95)
When the hot bowl arrives at your table at first nothing is visible save a brooding, bubbling red surface, slick with chili oil, opaque with roasted chili flakes and Sichuan peppercorns. Only by stirring it up do you release your target from the depths: tender slices of simmered fish that have been dipped in a slick batter, rendering them ultra moist and tender. Despite the abundance of chili flakes, the heat is mild compared to some other dishes on the menu—the chili is mostly there for aroma.
$6. Mapo Tofu ($9.25)
The mapo tofu at Fuloon is not listed on the menu, though it's difficult for me to understand why, as theirs is the standard by which I measure all other mapo tofu. Rich and intense, custard-smooth and blazingly hot, rib-stickingly satisfying, and mouth-numbing with the intensity of its Sichuan peppercorns, there's a reason this dish is one of the classics of Sichuan cuisine and one of the great foods of the world. (For a closer look at how it's made, check out the slideshow here).
#7. Mandarin Cabbage with Spicy and Sour ($9.25)
Who knew that cabbage could be one of the most exciting dishes on the menu? There's nothing complex going on here, just some perfectly stir-fried, crunchy napa cabbage licked by the smoky breath of a good carbon steel wok, coated in a thin, thin vinegary sauce, and tossed with some charred peppers. The heat and vinegar are mild, but their effect is to elevate the natural flavor of the cabbage to new heights.
#8. Home Style Eggplant ($9.25)
The eggplant is first steamed, then simmered in a sweet, vinegary sauce with plenty of garlic. It comes steaming hot with a large handful of cilantro and sliced scallions. A welcome palate cleanser from the slew of hot dishes that precede and follow it.
#9. Pickled Cucumber ($3.50)
Lightly garlicky and crisp, cool pickled cucumbers are an essential counterpoint to the seriously hot fare that's probably crowding your table.
#10. Bang Bang Chicken ($5.50)
Tender shredded chicken tossed with cilantro and scallions in a vinaigrette flavored with roasted chilis and Sichuan peppercorns.
#11. Kan Shue String Beans ($9.25)
Dry fried string beans come out blistered and tender but still bright green and crisp with plenty of flavorful pork and preserved mustard root to pick at in between bites of vegetables.
#12. Starch Noodle With Pork ($10.95)
Sticky starchy noodles come under a pile of glossy pork surrounded by shredded carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro. Toss the whole thing up into a veg-heavy, sweet saucy dish and the pork almost become extraneous.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.