“It looks menacing—it looks like it’s going to mess you up,” says Astoria owner Devin Gong. He’s grinning while looking down at a freshly prepared bowl of crimson-colored, water boiled beef. The first Sichuan dish Gong learned to make on his journey from bartender to chef is gaining legendary status in D.C. It’s the menu item other restaurant industry professionals, like Thamee‘s Simone Jacobson, can’t get enough of. And for good reason—it’s a flavor and texture playground that adheres to the Sichuan region’s “100 dishes, 100 flavors” mantra of serving dishes that slap.
The first step of making water boiled beef requires patience and a chef or cook with knife skills. Gong imports a variety of peppers from China from a producer he connected with on a three-week research trip to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. After frying them with numbing Sichuan peppercorns until they’re crispy, a brave soul chops the whole chilies until they’ve amassed a bowl of “knife chili” that has the look and texture of confetti. The fiery mix is set aside until the grand finale.
Next, Gong coats a wok with oil and adds collard greens, celery, and bean sprouts for about 30 seconds before he places them at the bottom of a bowl. Then Gong adds aromatics like ginger, garlic, and scallion to the wok, followed by one of the most important components of water boiled beef—Pi Xian Doubanjiang—a fermented bean paste similar to Korean gochujang, according to Gong.
Once the mixture turns red, signifying that the heat has drawn out the red chili oil from the paste, Gong ladles lamb stock and water into the wok to form a broth. The recipe typically calls for chicken or pork stock, but Gong prefers the gamier flavor of lamb. He’s from northern China where lamb is common. As the broth reduces, he introcues mushroom salt and soy sauce. Then he turns down the heat and nestles morsels of beef that have been marinated in egg white and starch to “give it a fluffier texture” once cooked.
After watching Gong prepare water boiled beef, it’s clear the name is a misnomer. “During this time in Chinese literary circles, they were doing a lot of opposites,” he explains. “It comes from the idea of like what seems like a mountain isn’t a mountain. What seems like water isn’t. You look at it and it says water boiled beef. It’s the complete opposite. There’s lots of Sichuan culinary names and categories that follow suit. Like ‘fish fragrant eggplant.’ There’s no fish. It just tastes like fish.”
Water boiled beef started as fuel for salt miners, according to Gong. “They produced salt and used oxen to transport it so they had a lot of beef,” he says. “It’s a working man’s dish. When you eat it, it wakes you up a little bit. It gives you energy.” It’s meant to be eaten with a hearty portion of rice. “To eat it, drag the vegetables out from the bottom so the oil coats each bite,” Gong instructs. “Mix it with rice and go from there.”
The oil atop the dish coats the inside of your cheeks as you eat the dish whose flavor is more numbing and complex than four-alarm fire. The beef is slippery and tender thanks to the egg white trick and the vegetables retain their bite. It’s a dish diners should share because it’s quite rich. Gong, who is also behind H Street NE bar Copycat Co., recommends pairing water boiled beef with a Painkiller cocktail.
Astoria opened in Dupont Circle this spring serving a menu of classic and creative cocktails paired with Sichuan food. “They’re very classic Sichuan dishes,” Gong says. Other items include chili wontons, mapo tofu, and dan dan noodles. “It’s not an expression of Sichuan food or, ‘Oh, I made this up.’ I wanted to learn the original dishes. That’s how I learned cocktails, by starting with the classics.”
There’s plenty to explore and both dishes and drinks are $14 each. “If you look at a lot of Sichuan food, it’s spicy, salty, sweet, savory, sometimes bitter, sometimes nutty,” Gong says. “They really like to play with every flavor you could possibly have and a variety of textures.”
Astoria, 1521 17th St. NW; (202) 754-0065; astoriadc.com