It’s hard to imagine that there’s any decent food — much less decent regional Chinese food — to be found on the barren stretch between Inman and Porter squares. But those willing to make the trek down Beacon Street in Somerville will find Zoe’s, a long-standing Chinese mecca that rivals Medford’s Chili Garden and Brookline’s dearly departed New Taste of Asia in its scorching rendition of Sichuan- and Northern-style cuisine. All the classics are here, and are well executed.
“Special mystery-flavored chicken” ($5.50), a dish whose name obscures its straightforward appeal, is a cold chicken and scallion salad. The “mysterious” flavors are chili oil, sugar, and vinegar — Sichuan cuisine’s trademark flavor combination. Duck feet mala style ($6.45) is whole web-on feet doused in a garlic-laced chili sauce flecked with Sichuan peppercorns. The mouth-numbing peppercorns deaden your senses just enough to allow you to power through the fiery chilies to the soft and giving meat below. Equally inspired are North-South-style specialties rarely seen on other menus in the city, like their lamb with cumin ($12.45), which combines thinly sliced, marinated, and crisply fried pieces of lamb dotted with chilies and cumin seeds.
For those with a true desire to punish their tongues with a capsicum-powered flagellation, the braised-beef filets and vegetables with hot chili is the only dish on the menu that earns a two-chili menu ranking. It arrives at the table in a hot clay pot, with slow bubbles breaking through the deep-red chili oil coating its surface in a menacingly volcanic way (now I know how the Pompeiians must have felt just before Vesuvius blew its top). Poking around the bowl with your chopsticks reveals tender slices of lean beef, pickled Sichuan vegetables, and cabbage beneath a thick layer of chili flakes. But as you pick up the pieces of beef and draw them through the blistering chili oil into your mouth, you realize that this dish ain’t no fire-breathing one-trick pony. The slow burn of the roasted chilies is perfectly tempered by the slightly sweet, slightly vinegary, and very savory braising liquid from the beef, while the cabbage miraculously retains its crunch through the whole cooking process. Just make sure your rice is ready before you finish the last bite, because this chili’s heat has more staying power than a crab Rangoon on a lunch-buffet steam table.
Available for $9 at Zoe’s Gourmet Chinese, 289 Beacon Street, in Somerville. Call 617.864.6265.
: Hot Plate
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