I recently started working with a graduate student from Sichuan province. She’s quite lovely, and we’ve talked a bit about her hometown at the end of her sessions. According to her, there is a serious dearth of English teachers in Sichuan compared to other provinces in China, and native speakers are few and far between. I continually joke that if I get to eat Sichuan food all the time, I’ll move to Chengdu in a hot minute. Last week she showed up with a brochure for a company that would arrange such a thing, and I started to wonder if I shouldn’t take her up on the idea.
Short of the occasional road trip to the San Gabriel Valley, I didn’t eat much Sichuan food when I first was living in California in the mid-aughts. I wouldn’t have been very interested if someone had proposed eating Sichuan in Orange County (and for that matter, nobody did). Fast forward to 2013, when I happened to notice a bumping Chongqing-style spot adjacent to the Ranch 99 where I sometimes shop. Curious, and not willing to drive all the way to the Valley for a fix when gas was over four bucks a gallon, I dragged B back to check it out a few nights later. The obsession was born.
To say that the fried tofu cubes with hot pepper at Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan Restaurant in Irvine are the best thing I ate last year would be such an understatement. They may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten? The dish certainly hits all the best notes: spicy, salty, fatty, crispy, and creamy. Cubes of tofu are deep fried with red chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and ginger. That’s it. Why is it so transcendently perfect? I don’t know. There is something about how the crunchy, spicy exterior sort melts into the silky tofu. All I know is that I literally have a filthy fantasy life entirely centered around this stuff.
They have some great other dishes as well – we always seem to order some variation of dan dan noodles, cumin stir-fried lamb, fish filet with preserved chili, or spicy eggplant. The service is really friendly, and it’s a great place to bring a group of people. They even have lazy susans! But really it’s that tofu. Oh man, that tofu. Make sure you order a #4. I’ll be the junkie in the corner with my own mound.