Life has been good lately to local lovers of Sichuan fare, with dozens of new spots popping up everywhere from Chinatown to the distant suburbs. Bostonians are learning to adore the cuisine’s signature fiery hot and numbing “mala” spicing made from chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. Further, the Sichuan spicy dry pot trend that overran Asia a few years ago has spread here, too. So it’s thrilling to uncover another fantastic traditional Sichuan outpost, Central Square’s new 5 Spices House, which builds on the excellence of its eponymous Chinatown sibling and adds justly-trendy spicy dry pot to the mix.
Tackling 5 Spices’ long menu is a daunting challenge we lustily embraced, sampling a couple dozen dishes. It’s useful to remember that not every Sichuan dish will stun you with numbing heat: There is plenty of tasty mildness to alternate with the fire-breathers. For every dish like Sichuan wontons with red chili sauce ($7)—small, tender, pork-filled, steamed wonton wrappers resting in a pool of ferociously mala chili oil and larded with crushed peanuts—there’s a gentle trio of doughy, pan-fried pork buns ($7), or the doughnut-like fried sweetness of red bean paste-filled pumpkin cakes ($6), or the faint dried-shrimp funkiness of chive pies ($7). Cucumber with house spicy sauce ($7) evokes Korean kimchi pickling, while steamed pork with garlic ($9) presents an eye-catching queue of uncured, thin-sliced pork belly wrapped around shredded cukes and scallions with another boatload of oily, fiery mala sauce. But you can cool those off with a big shareable bowl of West Lake beef chowder ($9), with its soothing, clear, lightly cornstarch-thickened broth floating ground beef, tofu cubes and fresh cilantro. These starters aren’t all home runs: Spicy edamame ($6) and salt-and-pepper crispy chicken ($8) err on the side of blandness, and some patrons will be put off by the oiliness of fiery dan dan noodles ($8) despite a delectable crown of minced pork.
It’s harder to find misses among the larger plates, like gently spicy foil-wrapped pork ($14) with peanuts, pickled peppers and cilantro, and perfectly mild sizzling-style chicken ($14) with tomatoes, mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots for ladling over crispy rice cakes. Cumin-style lamb ($17) brings both eye-popping mala heat (pick out the dried red chilies, don’t eat them) and a brilliant dusting of dried cumin, recalling the Muslim roots of some Sichuan dishes. We use Sichuan-style double-cooked pork ($14) as a benchmark for the cuisine, and 5 Spices does our favorite local version, its uncured bacon and copious leeks pulled together by a finely balanced, not-overwhelming mala sauce. Tea-smoked duck ($17) is a bargain with half of a crisp-skinned, only faintly smoky roasted duck. Sichuan braised beef noodle soup ($11), another hallmark dish, brings lovely five-spice complexity with strong notes of star anise and ginger in its heady broth, loaded with big cubes of tender, fatty chuck.
Vegetable dishes include a picture-pretty fan of baby bok choy around black mushrooms ($13) in a mild, glutinous sauce. Pea pod stems with garlic ($15) stand as a classic, simple, spring-fresh mess of greens.
Dry-sauteed string bean and bamboo tip ($11) offers the revelation that is fresh bamboo shoots to folks raised on American-Chinese fare, lightly punched up with hot spices. Mapo tofu ($11) offers another best-in-class version of a signature Sichuan dish, the soupy stew of cubed soft tofu with a bit of ground pork and insistent, oily mala heat.
If you haven’t tried Sichuan spicy dry pot, 5 Spices is a superb place to start. The drill is to approach the buffet-like case up front and point at various ingredients. Veggies, mushrooms, tofu and noodles are weighed at $10 per pound, meat and seafood at $14 per pound. Specify your heat preference from zero to four. Our roughly two-pound dry pot anchored a dinner for four at $26; we chose shiitakes, wood ear, spongy frozen tofu triangles, lotus root slices, insanely chewy konjak noodles, quail eggs, whole shrimp, flounder pieces and thin slices of beef and lamb. We quickly grasped why close to 100 percent of customers here order dry pot: It’s delicious, endlessly variable, a great bargain and, unlike its soupier cousin Chinese hot pot, the kitchen does all the work—and never overcooks anything.
The beverages include some dreadful, ickily sweet Tiki cocktails ($8) laced with cheap-tasting rum, a few plonky, barely passable wines ($8, glass; $30, bottle), food-friendly and refreshing Asian beers like Tsing Tao ($4) and quality oolong or jasmine tea ($0.60/head). The 64-seat storefront boasts crisply utilitarian ambiance with bright lighting, yellow walls, one music-video-playing flat-screen and a pretty Chinese mural stretching the length of another wall. Service is super-friendly and accommodating even to Sichuan neophytes; nobody tried to talk us out of anything spicy or steer us toward the lame “old-time favorites” (read American-Chinese) section of the menu. We ended up especially grateful that the kitchen never dumbs down the traditional flavors, and gives a good name to one of the world’s currently trendiest dishes. There are fancier places to get Sichuan fare, with lovelier rooms and better drinks, but the Central Square 5 Spices House, like its elder Chinatown sibling, now perches among our very favorites. ◆
Sichuan spicy dry pot
Sichuan wontons with red chili sauce
Cucumber with house spicy sauce
Steamed pork with garlic
West Lake beef chowder
Sichuan-style double-cooked pork
Sichuan braised beef noodle soup
string bean and bamboo tip
5 Spices House, 546 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (617-714-3339) 5spiceshouse.com; Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11 am-11 pm, Fri.-Sat., 11 am-midnight; Reservations: No; Liquor: Full; Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby public lots and garages