Embrace the heat at this Sichuan restaurant in North York

Hot Spicy Spicy is located at 173 Ravel Rd, Toronto.

Hot Spicy Spicy is located at 173 Ravel Rd, Toronto

Hot Spicy Spicy offers many dishes, like this chilli pepper chicken, that is an intriguing blend of sweet, sour and spicy, (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Suresh Doss: This week, we're heading to North York, to the group of plazas at Finch and Leslie Square. This plaza has been around for as long as I can remember and the makeup has changed quite drastically, over the last 20 years. Years ago, the plaza didn't really have an identity but today, it is undoubtedly an East Asian-themed plaza, with a half a dozen restaurants and even an Asian grocery store.

Ismaila Alfa: And which of those restaurants are you introducing us to?

Suresh Doss: So this is a 19 year old restaurant, that is located behind the plaza, on the opposite side. Actually I only found it when I couldn't find a place to park during one of those earlier day dinners. You drive behind the plaza, and you see another handful of restaurants, one of them being this small restaurant called Hot Spicy Spicy. 

Simon Chen and Mama Chen run Hot Spicy Spicy in North York. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: I'm already intrigued by the name. You know I'm always up for spicy food.

Suresh Doss: Yes, I have a good sense of your spice tolerance after last week. So this place opened in the early 2000s, but with quite a different menu.

Ismaila Alfa: Different how?

Suresh Doss: It was very broad, it covered large swaths of cooking through China. Then in the mid 2000's, a lady that goes by Mama Chen took over the restaurant, and started to tweak the menu. She's from the city of Chongqing, and she noticed that there was a lack of this kind of Chinese cuisine in North York. 

Hot Spicy Spicy offers the breadth of Sichuanese cuisine. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: Describe it for us.

Suresh Doss: So Chongqing was a municipality located within Sichuan Province, up until 1997. And there are some identifiable qualities to the cuisine of Chongqing. It would be too easy to say that it's a culture of food that is based on street food, or quick wok-fried dishes. Or fiery dishes that are always served with an intimidating amount of Chile peppers or chili oil but there is a lot of depth and nuance to the cooking here. I want to introduce Simon Chen, the gentleman who runs the restaurant. He is the best person you could talk to, to walk you through the cooking of his home town Chongqing. 

"When you see Sichuan dishes, there are four classics, mapo tofu, the shredded pork with garlic sauce, the kung pao chicken, and twice cooked pork. These four are your traditional stir-fried dishes for the Sichuanese cuisine. If you go to a Sichuanese restaurant, to see of they're good, you order one or two of these. If they're good, the other dishes will be fine. If they're making these terrible - don't event try the others."

 Ismaila Alfa: That's interesting - it's a way to test how authentic the food is?

The mapo tofu at Hot Spicy Spicy is served with a generous dusting of the iconic ground Sichuan peppercorn that numbs the lip and tongue. It leaves you with an addictive tingling sensation rather than a burn. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Suresh Doss: I never considered this, but with most cuisine, there are litmus tests to the cuisine. He's proposing that there are four dishes that would do the trick. The mapo tofu, this simple composition of soft blocks of tofu suspended in a pool of sauce cooked with fermented black beans, chili paste and minced meat. It's very easy to get this wrong. But they nail it every time. And Ismaila, its served with a generous dusting of ground Sichuan peppercorn, this is the iconic lip and tongue numbing pepper. It doesn't burn, it gives you that tingling sensation, a very addictive feeling. 

The textures of the pepper against thin slices of charred pork in the twice-cooked pork makes this dish interesting. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: He also mentioned twice cooked pork?

Suresh Doss: Yes, this is a dish that comes together really fast. You have this high heat wok, whirring like a jet engine and previously cooked cuts of pork are thinly sliced, then tossed int the wok with spicy broad bean paste and Shaoxing wine. Its taken out, then in goes long green peppers, ginger, spicy broad bean paste and  more Shoaxing wine. The pork goes back in, the entire medley gets lashed against the fire for a minute or two and on to a plate. 

Ismaila Alfa: There are some steps to that, people must love it. 

Suresh Doss: There's great textural play here between the pepper and the thin slices of charred pork, you get the breath of the wok. Everything has a coating of the rich umami from the broad bean paste, and the aromas of ginger that lift off the plate. So yes, he's absolutely right that these dishes are the key markets of great Chongqing dishes,
I just wish we're able to sit down and enjoy them in the restaurant because there is a very unique ambiance in the dining room. But they also travel very well.

The Yibin Noodles has a crunchy exterior with a soft inside. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: So mapo tofu and twice cooked pork. Do you recommend anything else on the menu?

Suresh Doss: So the best thing about Hot Spicy Spicy is how they have dialled into the cuisine in the last 5-7 years. The menu has some incredible dishes that require you to visit multiple times. I would urge you to try the chilli pepper chicken. Also referred to as the spicy popcorn chicken. Don't be intimidated when you receive the dish and you find that all of the chicken is submerged under a mound of chilli peppers. It's not as spicy as it looks, the key here is the depth of the chilli pepper and these wonderful super crunchy morsels of chicken underneath.

There is also, the Yibin noodles. Here's Simon again. 

"In terms of Yibin noodles, only Sichanese restaurant offers this. The texture of the skin is a little crispy but the inside still soft. You put this in a deep fryer for just a couple of seconds, not too long." 

The Yu Xiang Qie Zi is a vegetarian treat of eggplants cooked in a ginger, garlic base. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: What a story. I love how they're embracing the heat and chilli at this place.

Suresh Doss: There are various levels of heat. Simon really is your best friend when you visit this restaurant, he can guide you through it. Also, I should mention that there are many vegetarian dishes, you can get the Yibin noodles veg. One of my favourite dishes on the menu is the Yu Xiang Qie Zi. It's this wonderful stir fry of eggplant with ginger, garlic base with this wonderful sweet an sourness. I think that's my favourite dish right now. I crave it often. 

Ismaila Alfa: You also mentioned that there's something special about the vibe of this place?

Suresh Doss: So both Simon and Mama Chen have gone to great lengths to transport their diners to Chongqing. The restaurant is decorated with city maps, photos of popular travel spots and plenty of local ornaments. Simon said that they want the customers to feel Chongqing around them. That its not about who is cooking, its about food being this transportive mechanism to take you somewhere, even If it is for a meal.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.