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In Spice Route, writer Warren Rojas connects diners with the area’s most fiery and flavorful dishes.
Location: Mama Chang, 3251 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax; (703) 268-5556; mamachangva.com
Vision: Providing diners with thrilling meals is the modus operandi of the Chang family.
Devotees have chased patriarch Peter Chang around the country for more than a decade, always hoping for another fix of his famously “numbing” cuisine. At Mama Chang, it’s his wife Lisa Chang’s time to shine by showcasing the “fragrant spicy” foodways of central China. “The key is aroma—the smoking smell of spice,” Lisa says.
In many ways, the big, brightly lit spot is the dream eatery Peter always craved. The ingredient-driven food does not compromise and the drinks lend themselves to any occasion—frosty Tsingtao beers are a common sight, as are bottles of sparkling rosé.
While there are some safe options sprinkled across the menu (roast duck, anyone?), roughly half the selections sport some degree of the “hot & spicy” designation. Twelve carry the three-pepper maximum warning.
Execution: Whereas Peter’s signature creations share that telltale anesthetic quality that screams “Sichuan peppercorns at play!” Lisa favors flavor profiles combining fresh chili peppers such as jalapeños, bird’s eye peppers, and Thai chilis, plus dried pods, chili paste, and chili oils.
Carnivores have their pick of sesame-studded chicken nuggets bolstered by diced red and green chilis, where an immediate heat rush dwindles to a citrusy zing, or the hot and numbing beef jerky. The latter is somewhat misleading, given that the featured beef is succulent and flavorful rather than dry and tough.
The most intoxicating experience is a hearty stew featuring buttery flounder and dimpled tofu crowned with torn herbs and pickled bird’s eye chilis. Beneath the surface lies vermicelli soaking in a jalapeño-spiked broth. Each spoonful zaps the lips and tongue first, then coats the mouth with chili oil that intensifies with every breath.
These aren’t even Lisa’s favorite fire starters. “I love to bake cookies and pastries with ghost chilis,” she says.
Intensity (out of five): Five sirens