- By Wendell Brock For the AJC
On my first visit to Yummy Spicy on Buford Highway, I made it through the hot and numbing chicken, no problem.
I devoured the beef tendon and tripe in chili sauce as easily as a can of sardines — easy-peasy.
Even the stir-fry of spicy lamb did not blister my Caucasian taste buds, though it was spiked with no less than three kinds of capsicum: Sichuan peppercorns, red-pepper flakes and pods of dried red chilies.
However, on my second visit, when I tasted a dish of strips of battered and flash-fried eggplant in a nest of incinerating red chilies, I cried uncle.
Reaching for a bite of cold sesame noodles tossed with cucumber, I asked the server: “Am I supposed to eat those chilies, or are they just for decoration?”
“No,” he said. “Take a few, if you like.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.) “But don’t feel compelled to scarf them down. Not even Chinese people eat all those chilies! They are mainly for looks.”
Thank goodness. My parents taught me to clean my plate, but that would be torture.
I took a swig of Tsingtao and moved on to the next course: a blazing hotpot of catfish, tofu and Chinese greens, all swimming in a heady red broth — fragrant with chilies, so delicious spooned over rice. Yummy Spicy, indeed.
Such has been my experience at Atlanta’s new inside-the-Perimeter spot for Sichuan. In a terracotta-colored building with arching Spanish-style windows, it appears to have been a Mexican joint in a previous life. Now it’s a dependable place to experience the famously prickly cuisine of southwestern China.
More safe and solid than stellar, Yummy Spicy may not be on par with Masterpiece in Duluth (a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist that AJC dining critic Wyatt Williams awarded three stars) or Q Cafe in Johns Creek. But it has its charms.
The friendly staff is eager to hold your hand and usher you through the mysteries of a menu that includes pork intestines, lamb backbones, salt and pepper frog and “malatang” (skewers of veggies, meat or seafood cooked tableside in bubbling vats of broth).
Beer and wine are available, so thankfully, you don’t have to run to the closest convenience store for BYOB. For non-tipplers and the kids, there’s an appealing list of house-crafted fruit sodas, teas and bubble tea.
A good strategy here is to start with the cold appetizer assortment called the Yummy Platter. It’s a sensible way to acclimate yourself to the experience and calm your taste buds if the spice becomes too intense as the meal progresses.
Pickled cabbage is gently seasoned with toasted-sesame and red-chili oils. Wood-ear mushrooms are earthy, pungent and soothing — unless you unwittingly bite into one of the green chilies that are coyly tossed in.
And don’t be intimidated by the aforementioned hot and numbing chicken and beef tendon and tripe in chili sauce: Yummy Spicy’s versions of these Sichuan standards are delicious. One caveat: Since you get a dish of that same pickled cabbage as a complimentary nosh, why is it repeated with this spread?
Noodles are a standout at Yummy Spicy. I still dream about those “Sichuan Cold Noodles” tossed with peanut-butter-like sesame paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Classic dan dan noodles are another wonderful option. Essentially, it’s a bowl of vermicelli, sitting in a puddle of chili oil and garnished with crushed peanuts, scallions, sesame seeds and your choice of ground pork or beef. (We liked the pork.) Just toss it all up, and slurp.
Mapo tofu, that defining regional dish of soft bean curd and pork in a slick of bright red chili oil and crunchy Sichuan peppercorns, was satisfying but not exceptional. The blocks of tofu were ginormous; better to dice them up into tiny cubes so they can better absorb the flavors.
Though our server recommended it, the family-size Spicy Fragrant Lamb was a bit of a snooze: stalks of Chinese celery, lots and lots of undercooked onion, meat that was more generic than gamey. A better choice to share is the Braised Fish With Tofu in Chili Oil, a lovely catfish dish that keeps revealing surprises (tofu, bok choy) the more you toss it around.
And be sure to order the dry-fried eggplant. It’s cooked at such a high temperature that the interior virtually collapses into something soft, unctuous and custardy, while the exterior develops a pleasing crunch. Pick these featherlight spears up with your fingers, and inhale them like french fries.
Just be sure to push that abundance of red chilies out of the way.