The fiery, flavorful cooking of China’s Sichuan province can seem daunting to the uninitiated—the ubiquitous Sichuan peppercorn and the region’s almost fanatical love of chiles. An influx of Sichuan restaurants in O.C. has made dishes such as the so-called dry pot nearly commonplace. Think soup-less hot pot, a one-dish wonder loaded with meat, vegetables, and herbs, without the broth.
Tustin’s Sichuan Impression is the restaurant’s second location, a bigger, sleeker outgrowth of the Alhambra original. Dry pot dishes are curiously translated as the restaurant’s “griddle series.” Order the squid dry pot: lengths of tender squid, thinly sliced lotus root and potato, celery, bamboo shoots, cilantro, and a surfeit of chiles. Even with all its chile heat, this is a delicate dish, with a lingering, cumin-scented burn giving way to ingredients that are expertly cooked.
Happy Dining is dedicated to dry pot. There are three sizes and 14 varieties here, including those with pork ribs, shrimp, crab, lamb, or assorted offal. There’s no escaping the dish’s signature burn, but cauliflower and bean sprouts make unique additions. Even better is that the restaurant offers a whole menu of add-ons. You can keep it light with cabbage, kelp, and tofu or make it stick to your ribs with noodles and glutinous, Korean-style rice cakes.
At Spicy City, it’s all about the combination dry pot. The dish is loaded with a surf-and-turf mix of beef and fish plus that same crunchy lotus root, firm cauliflower, and an assemblage of chiles. If you can handle the heat, there’s a little something for everyone.
Sichuan impression doesn’t shower every dish with chiles. Take the excellent tea-smoked pork ribs—a miniature rack scattered with a bit of dry chile, chopped peanuts, and flecks of green onion. Servers carve the ribs tableside, and it doesn’t take much to ply the tender meat from the bones.
13816 Red Hill Ave., Tustin
4250 Barranca Parkway, Irvine
14310 Culver Drive, Irvine
Photos by Prisicilla Iezzi