For reasons I don’t care to explain, I’m sitting at a stoplight on Rockville Pike, chopsticks in hand, ready to dig into my to-go order of Sichuan-style fish filets from Big Wang’s Cuisine in Derwood. Some part of me knows this is a monumentally stupid idea, even as I pop the lid off a magma-hot plastic container and poke around in the red sea of chili oil and broth for a sliver of succulent white fish.
Proud of my dexterity to pull off this feat while stuck in traffic — it may be the first time I’ve been thankful for the sleep-inducing length of the stoplights along the Pike — I pop the fish in my mouth. The flesh, coated with a microscopic layer of oil, feels lush on the tongue, a sensual pleasure that lasts mere milliseconds before the chili pepper’s heat trips the fire alarm in my brain. Before I know it, I’ve coughed the filet onto my lap, which is now ablaze, too. Where’s the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department when I need it?
My first lesson about Big Wang’s is to always — always — listen to the staff when they warn you about the spice level. Even with my hard-bitten palate, which has grown impervious to a few of the hottest peppers in the known Scoville universe, I could not contain this wildfire of a dish. At least not on first bite, which is always the worst, the one that shocks your unsuspecting taste buds.
Once I land at my destination, I attack the container of Sichuan fish as if it deserves to be punished. That’s when I realize the infused chili oil and broth are more than pipe bombs. Sharp and sweet aromatics — I detect garlic, ginger, maybe even cinnamon — linger around the edges like Texas A&M students at a bonfire. My second lesson about Big Wang’s is as obvious as the first: There’s a reason this small dining room is always packed with customers who can trace a line back to China. The place cuts no corners with its execution of Sichuan dishes.
Yet Big Wang’s largely remains a mystery. Its co-owner, Bo Wang, belongs to that rare breed of restaurateur who shies from publicity. I called his place searching for him. I emailed him. I combed databases for his cell number. I came up empty on all fronts. One evening, I did (apparently) meet Bo’s father, a tall, silent type, who was hanging around the restaurant, looking like a man in charge. I asked if he was actually Bo Wang, the ghost operative behind this Sichuan spice factory. An employee answered for him. No, she said, he’s the owner’s father. No name was provided.
I can confirm one thing, though: Whether this man was Bo Wang, or his father, he was a large presence. There seems to be no irony behind Big Wang’s name.
Fortunately, the servers at Wang’s restaurant are more talkative than he is. I learned, for instance, that there are four chefs in the kitchen: two from Sichuan, one from Shanghai and the last from Shandong. But don’t look for the salty, fishy dishes from Shandong here; there are none. Sichuan fare dominates the menu, including the spicy dry hot pot, a brothless bowl that has supplanted the dip-your-own-dinner hot pot as the de rigueur Chinese communal dish.
The staff won’t provide much guidance in building your dry hot pot. One overcast afternoon, some friends and I cobbled together a bowl with beef, five-spice bean curd, pork belly, lotus root, scallions, fishballs and fat clumps of enoki mushrooms, which are billed under their taxonomic genus, Flammulina. If our creation managed to incorporate the five elements of Chinese cooking — a meal should include sweet, salty, spicy, bitter and sour flavors to keep your five major organs in harmony — it was only by accident. Frankly, I thought the briny fishballs paired best with the numbing heat of the chili oil that coated each ingredient. This was fast-casual dining, Sichuan-style, far more rewarding than many build-your-own meals.
The stir-fried pig’s feet requires no culinary training to order it but demands that you use your hands to nibble the rich, sticky mass of meat, fat and tendon off the bulky trotter sections. It’s like biting gooey caramel off a bone, except this pig candy hits hot and spicy, the soul food of Sichuan. The stir-fried spicy chicken, another Sichuan specialty, doesn’t offer the same textural delights as the pig’s feet, but the bone-in pieces of bird meat possess the same forceful ma-la personality, a shock-jock assault of spice/heat (la) and eventual numbness (ma).
Shanghai fare hides in the margins of the menu. My favorite is the Shanghai-style braised pork, a platter of meltingly tender pork belly lacquered with a burgundy-colored sauce that emits the sweet, earthy aromas of five-spice powder. The bonus? The same liquid elixir can be applied to the side bowl of white rice, which plays up the sauce’s savory qualities, the sweetness banished to someplace where your palate can’t find it.
The kitchen can fumble a dish or two. The bean-curd skewer, one of many foods available on a stick, was as dry and lifeless as a fallen tree. A whole fried-and-glazed striped bass — mistakenly translated as “sweet and sour fish filet” on the menu — provided plenty of eye candy, but little else. It smacked more of fryer oil than the sweet, delicate flesh of rockfish.
Stick with the dishes beholden to chili oil, which, a waiter told me, requires a 12-hour process to reach full voice. The viscous solution ignites everything it touches, even the sliced pork in garlic sauce, a pork-belly appetizer that neglects to mention its nearly invisible glaze of Sichuan lighter fluid. The oil also coats the “lamb with spicy cumin,” which probably increased my internal temperature by 10 degrees — Celsius. But at least I didn’t cough it up in my lap.
16051 Frederick Rd.,
Derwood, Md. 301-977-7676.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shady Grove, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Soups, appetizers and skewers, $1.25-$29.95; entrees, hot pots and specials, $7.95-$38.95.