One of the most satisfying Sunday meals I’ve had in recent months involved a bowl of spicy stew at Original Cuisine, Mesa’s latest hot spot for Sichuan-style Chinese cuisine.
This particular stew was spicy, salty, sour, bitter, and smoky all at once, and it jolted my taste receptors in a way that made it hard to pinpoint exactly what made it taste so bewitchingly good.
Was it the heat of the dried chili peppers, the lip-numbing properties of Sichuan peppercorns, or the skillful blending of spices like ginger and cloves? Was it the neat squares of coagulated pork blood, the musky chew of the pork intestines, or perhaps the ingenious infusion of salty luncheon meat?
Clearly, it was the delicious alchemy of all the above; the impressive depth and flavor of this particular stew involves the skillful layering of flavor upon flavor, a hallmark trait of well-executed Sichuan cooking. The stew, listed on the menu as “Pork Blood, Intestine, Spam in Hot Chili Oil,” defies the tired notion that Sichuan-style cooking boils down to just chili oil and peppercorns.
Served in an oversize ceramic bowl that can easily feed two or three, this dish alone is reason enough to visit Original Cuisine, which opened earlier this year on Broadway Road in Mesa, just across the road from the Arizona International Marketplace.
It is the second location of Original Cuisine (the first is in Irvine, California), and it takes over a standalone spot formerly occupied by a string of mom-and-pop shops and fast food restaurants. You might never guess it used to be a fast food joint, though, as the dining room features splashy design touches like colorful wallpaper, midcentury-inspired dining chairs, and a partially open kitchen.
It’s not quite as comfortably spacious and group-friendly as other Sichuan spots around town; an acquaintance recently complained to me that the restaurant’s tabletops were not nearly big enough to comfortably fit all five dishes ordered by his party. But, cramped quarters aside, there’s much to love about dining at Original Cuisine, including its very strong appetizer menu.
The essential appetizer here might be the pork belly with garlic sauce, which features pounded-thin sheets of the rich meat, layered with paper-thin slices of cucumber. The long, thin strips are draped enticingly over a wooden rack, just begging to be picked at and dipped into an accompanying dish brimming with garlicky sauce. The presentation is dramatic, but it’s the ludicrously rich flavor of the meat, amplified by the pungent dipping sauce, that you’ll remember most fondly.
Cold noodles, while slightly less visually stunning, are another standout. The dish is a skein of extra-chewy, chili-blasted chow mein. Every bite flares pleasantly with peppery heat, and the wonderfully chewy texture of the crimped, tangled noodles makes for a dish that’s easy to love.
Chicken feet, served cold and laced with pickled peppers, are surprisingly refreshing. The wan-looking feet are gelatinous and bear a slight citrus tang so that the dish doubles as a delicious palate cleanser amid the glut of chili-slicked options.
Pig ears are standard at any decent Sichuan joint, but the rendition at Original Cuisine stands out as one of the best in town. The ears are sliced into wide, papery segments, so thin that they seem like they might melt on your tongue. They’re brilliantly sluiced in the house chili sauce, which helps temper the speed at which you can burn through a whole dish of them.
One of the most appealing appetizers at Original Cuisine also happens to be one of the most simple: a bowl of wood-ear mushrooms dressed in lemon. The dark, crimped mushrooms are springy and nearly rubbery to touch, and their chewy texture, kissed with citrus, makes them only slightly less addictive than the kitchen’s take on pig ears.
A big part of what makes Original Cuisine one of the stronger Sichuan restaurants in the Valley is the sheer breadth of mains and sides on the menu. Noodle dishes, pan-fried specialties, stews, and veggies offer a glimpse into the vast universe and contemporary possibilities of Sichuan cooking.
There’s the house barbecued fish, for instance, a dish that’s still not easy to find elsewhere around metro Phoenix. A whole fried catfish dappled with peanuts and perfumed with peppercorns, it is presented on a small tabletop grill, the fish suspended in a bubbling, scarlet-colored peppery stew that continues to braise the fish on the table. Its extra-crispy skin flakes off with ease and tastes as rich and flavorful as anything else you’re likely to encounter on the menu. At nearly $30, it’s a bit of a splurge, but it can feed a small group with ease.
Pork really shines in Sichuan cooking, and that’s especially true at Original Cuisine, as is the case with the breaded spareribs, for which the small, deliriously fatty ribs are crisped up to a lovely golden-brown finish.
Standards like twice-cooked pork, mapo tofu, and kung pao chicken also make appearances, although they tend to be more boldly flavored than what you might find on the average takeout menu. Twice-cooked pork is sliced into ambrosial strips and punched up with salty fermented beans. Mapo tofu, touched by peppercorn, bursts with salty and palate-tingling flavor. And kung pao chicken is delivered as a texture-rich stir-fry, the diced chicken, veggies, and nuts wrapped in a lovely sweet-spicy sauce that exudes ginger, garlic, and vinegar.
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SHOW ME HOW
Original Cuisine just recently introduced a secret menu of sorts, and it’s worth asking your server for the Sichuan pancakes, which are not listed on the regular menu. The thickly-built pancake has the eggy and sweet properties of a French crepe, infused with savory layers of finely sliced luncheon meat. It’s delicious.
If you’ve resisted the allure of Sichuan-style cooking in the past, Original Cuisine is not likely to convert you into the fold. And for longtime and voracious consumers of Sichuan fare, Original Cuisine might not feel particularly revelatory. But there’s no doubt that it brings a welcome burst of vibrant energy to the Valley’s growing regional Chinese dining scene, and that’s hardly a small thing.
1853 West Broadway Road, Mesa
Hours: Friday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; closed Thursday
Pork belly with garlic sauce $9.99
Pork blood, intestine, Spam in hot chile oil $18.99
Barbecue fish $25.99
Breaded spareribs $13.99