Wait for it. Is it kicking in? Hold on—yes, no, yes! Here it is! First comes the bright, pungent flavor. Then the fizzy-numb sensation. Then something even more remarkable happens: Flavors start to gently glow. Salt seems subtly saltier, sweet becomes sweeter, chiles more vibrant. It’s like the way things look sharper when you put on yellow snow goggles. My friends Paige and Bob and I are having lunch at two-month-old Pepper Twins, in Houston, and, no, we haven’t been smoking anything. We’re under the sway of Zanthoxylum simulans, and even though we’ve partaken of the wily Sichuan peppercorn before, each time is an adventure all over again.
The world is full of mind-bending things that people ingest in the name of nutrition and recreation—coffee and chocolate at one end of the spectrum, puffer fish and magic mushrooms at the other—but for most Americans, the berries of the prickly ash are not part of the everyday repertoire. The spiky trees grow in parts of China, and the small green berries they produce taste not unlike our familiar peppercorn, Piper nigrum. For centuries, they played a singular role in the celebrated cooking of the Sichuan province (or Szechuan, as it used to be spelled). Then, in the sixteenth century, spice traders ambled down the Silk Road with a trove of exotic New World ingredients, including chile peppers. Sichuan cooking was never the same. The boisterous synergy of the native peppercorns and exotic peppers even spawned a word, mala, meaning “simultaneously tingly and spicy hot.” We’re definitely on a mala kick today.
Pepper Twins opened in late September, another in a wavelet of Asian places—Mala Sichuan Bistro, Pho Binh Noodle & Grill, Les Ba’get—that have sprung up inside the Loop, bringing with them the strong, pure flavors found on Houston’s more-distant Asian thoroughfare, Bellaire Boulevard. Inside a small spot in a West Gray strip mall, Pepper Twins’ smart red walls set off bold black-and-white murals of Chinese landscapes and country scenes. A diverse crowd fills forty or so seats, tended by young servers who tirelessly explain the dishes. The setup is casual in the extreme. Orders arrive supersonically fast, and you the customer are in charge of pacing: don’t order everything at once unless you want it to arrive that way.
The story of how Pepper Twins came to be is a curious one. Two and a half years ago 36-year-old Yunan Yang was a cancer researcher living in Madison, Wisconsin, when an extremely difficult second pregnancy caused her to rethink everything about her life. Yes, she had an excellent career, but she wasn’t happy. Yes, Madison was charming, but its subzero winters chilled her to the bone. In 2015 Yang, her husband—a physician—and their two children pulled up stakes and moved to Houston, where her sister Lily Luo was living. Not long after that, Yang and Luo collaborated on a restaurant named Cooking Girl. Pepper Twins followed about a year later as Yang’s solo project, and it has been as big a hit as the first endeavor.
When you’re perusing Pepper Twins’ menu, you’ll find it easy to fashion a fire-breathing spread: roughly two thirds of the items have treacherous-looking little chile pepper symbols beside them. An appetizer that caught our attention as a good introduction (one chile) was Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a cold platter of thin-sliced beef and beef tendon. There were the expected differences of opinion at our table over the gummy-bear texture of the sliced tendon (“Kinda cool!” “Freaks me out!”) but universal agreement on the tender beef and the sauce, a magical elixir involving chile oil, sesame paste, ginger, a pinch of cinnamon, and of course the inevitable peppercorns and whole chiles.
Another, slightly hotter dish—also an exploration in texture—was Fish Swimming in Pickle. The fish had been given a treatment not common, maybe not even existent, in Western cooking. First the pieces were gilded in lightly beaten egg whites brightened with a pinch of sugar. Then they took a deep dive into a bubbling golden broth, where they went all soft and blowsy and soaked up the flavors of pickled goodies like Chinese cabbage. It’s worth noting that the fish in question was Gulf flounder, which, besides being delicious, exemplifies Yang’s insistence on using top-quality ingredients, local if possible, like Angus beef and Berkshire pork. As for the Sichuan peppercorns, they’re the opposite of local. She gets them fresh frozen from her hometown of Chongqing.
Over the course of lunch, and a few more visits, I plowed through a dozen dishes and wished I could have done more. Favorites included Mountain City Noodle and a fine rendition of the classic mapo tofu. Mild-mannered Soft Square Bacon, a rectangle of jiggly, translucent pork belly, came snuggled up to a whole steamed bok choy, with chopped scallions and little red peppers twinkling from a dark, soy-based sauce. Fairly tender lobster tail provided more sweet meat than two or three people could gorge themselves on, although it did require some fork work to pop it off the shell. To be truthful, I was a tad bored by the unspicy dishes, with two notable exceptions: Dry Fried Green Beans came stacked like kindling, ever so slightly wrinkled from time spent in the wok, where their flavor concentrated into a near meaty intensity. Sautéed Golden Egg and Sweet Corn, a usually savory Chinese dish, looked like hominy but was in fact fresh American corn amped up with nubbins of scallion, celery, and mild red pepper; accents of preserved salted duck egg gave it a rich, sweet-salty lilt. After one bite, Paige turned to Bob and said, “I want this at Christmas!”
At the end of our lunch, the three of us sat looking at one another with silly smiles on our faces. We had stayed twice as long as we’d intended because we hadn’t wanted the moment to end. I know I’m raving on about something that’s an ordinary experience to a large part of the world. But I don’t get to have Sichuan peppercorns every day. Sometimes you just can’t resist playing with your food.
1915 W. Gray, Houston (346-204-5644). L & D Tue–Sun. $$
Opened: September 23, 2016