- 13825 English Villa Drive, Louisville, KY, 40245
- (502) 244-8896
- Overall User Rating:
- (3 ratings)
- 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday; noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
Two syllables are the key to Sichuanese food: Ma la, which translate as “numbing and spicy.”
La means heat – the rich, intense, swelling pungency of chiles that melds with ginger, garlic, sesame, sugar, salt, and other elements to build the intricate flavors that make this one of the world’s most exciting culinary styles.
“Ma” refers to the peculiar effect of the Sichuan pepper (hua jiao). These little pink kernels aren’t proper peppers at all; they’re the dried fruits of the prickly ash tree. And they aren’t hot: chew one, it tastes faintly of lemon. Then, after a bit, you notice a faint pins-and-needles tingle in your mouth. According to Fuchsia Dunlop’s estimable Sichuanese cookbook, “Land of Plenty,” it’s this numbing effect that gives Sichuanese cooking its power, since it allows people to “consume more chiles than would otherwise be humanly possible.”
The best place in the city to experience the nuanced power Ma la is Jasmine Chinese Cuisine. When it opened, five years ago, Jasmine was tiny place with handful of tables (I’ve been a regular pretty much from the beginning, which makes it impossible for me to dine there anonymously). Last month, Jasmine moved to new digs (next door to the old place) with seating for over a hundred, and already the place is overrun with sit-down diners who before might have had to settle for carry-out. In these early days, the service logistics seem still to be catching up with the new scale of operations, but the prevailing aura of warmth and eagerness offsets the occasional bit of confusion. The new place features a cosmopolitan look with warm lighting, a color scheme that focuses on black and tan, with subtle red riffs, a short bar (complete with a TV), and – most importantly - an expanded kitchen space that has enabled owner Lan Zhang and her husband, Chef Lan Lin, to expand the menu.
And what a menu it is! Five years ago, Jasmine offered two menus, one listing Chinese-American classics (sweet and sour chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan, etc.), and another listing authentic Sichuan dishes. Now, all those dishes are integrated in a magisterial 16 page list that comfort those who love the familiar tastes of Mongolian beef and General Tso’s chicken, while also promising months of discovery for those who crave more adventurous fare.
And no matter which side of that culinary fence you favor, the dishes are forged with exquisite attention to detail. Chef Lin hails from Chengdu, the culinary (and political) capital of Sichuan, and his work is stunningly detailed. Slivered filaments of daikon are dressed with red oil, vinegar, bits of crushed peanuts, and faint hints of Sichuan peppercorns for a cool salad that radiates slow heat ($4.95); slices of cucumber arrayed in attractive, overlapping circles pit their intrinsic coolness against that same, slow-moving heat ($4.95). Cool sesame noodles and warm Dan Dan noodles (both $5.95) boast firm, toothsome textures and light piquant sauces that tickle the tongue and prepare the palate for the dishes to follow.
One night I feasted on offal dishes that served as a veritable clinic in texture: crisp-tender strips of long-simmered pig ear and translucent slices of beef maw and tendon that felt like luxurious fabric on the tongue – all of them in sauces infused with subtle heat. Pork kidneys are cut in small pieces, then flash-cooked so they’re just a tad firmer than liver, and served with slices of fresh ginger and garlic that explode on the tongue, and myriad finely carved vegetables in a rich brown sauce ($9.95). On the menu, this is called sautéed pork kidneys, but the literal translation is Fire-Exploded Kidney Flowers, a name that captures its fusion of the earthly and the ethereal.
On other visits, we sampled more familiar dishes. Tea-smoked duck fragile, golden-brown skin, juicy, unctuous flesh, and the celestial aroma of tea ($10.95). A magnificent spicy flounder hot pot ($12.95) bubbled over a table-top burner like a red ocean of flavor (it was easily enough to feed four people, and overflowed with snow-white chunks of fish and tofu, red chiles, fragrant black mushrooms, red chiles and slices of jalapeno, and a grand collection of vegetables and aromatics).
For drier appetites, there are hot and spicy chicken served on the bone ($8.95), hot and spicy shrimp ($11.95) studded with grains of ruby red chili. For milder tastes, there are gentle soups, and Egg Fu Young. The menu goes on and on with lamb, pork, beef, poultry, rabbit, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. And there are plenty of evocative names to keep me coming back: “Ring Bell Pork,” “Empty Heart Vegetables,” “Hot and Spicy Duck Tongue.”
And then there are the two syllables that matter the most: Ma and la.