Not all of Plano’s Sichuan restaurants are alike.
Some, like Little Sichuan, stash their traditional dishes in a binder of specialty items kept separate from the usual litany of wontons and stir-fries. Some, like Fish House, specialize in live seafood straight from the tank, coated red with spices or served in sizzling hot pots. Sichuan Folk has the heaviest hand with the peppercorns, which have made the cuisine famous for its spicy, tongue-tingling mala quality.
Tasty House, a newcomer that opened just off Central Expressway in January, is creating its own distinctive identity. The fish here is some of the best Sichuan fish in Texas, and the “rice crust” items are a house specialty with more color and more dramatic presentation than the name might suggest. Oh, and this is one of the few places in the Dallas area to feast on sizzling pig brains.
The mala element — mala translates to “numbing and spicy” — is in play at Tasty House, but not with the same awe-inspiring firepower that Sichuan Folk displays in lip-tingling dishes like the hot pot bullfrog. Instead, Tasty House settles into a delicate balance: You can tell the Sichuan peppers are there, with their bright flavor and gentle numbing effect, but they do not predominate.
That’s the case for standout dishes like the storm fish, a platter of small swai fillets quickly fried to a delicate crispness ($13). There’s not a hint of frying grease on this plate or of doughy or pasty batter. The fish’s flesh is just cooked through, and the platter is topped with a showering of peppers and scallions. It’s a perfect dish.
Equally good are some of the staples that round out the menu, like a cumin chicken stir-fry that seems to compel bite after bite ($10). It’s not fancy or innovative, but it’s more flavorful than some of the cumin-meat dishes around Dallas, with long green stalks of green onion mixed in with the subtly spice-dusted meat. Ma po tofu here is not a spicy-food challenge, nor is it buttressed with the usual heaping helping of ground pork ($9). That will definitely make Tasty House’s rendition unpopular with some diners, but the soft tofu and bold red peppery sauce spooned over rice are warming and comforting.
It’s easy to eat a full Sichuanese meal here without once encountering any spicy food — and that’s neither inauthentic nor cause for a complaint. The noodle bowls range from fiery hot — one of them is even called burning hot ($8) — to a mellow bowl of noodles and pork mixed with pickled mustard greens ($10). If you’re ordering a mix of dishes, try one of the subtler noodle dishes before a spicy one so that its gentler taste doesn’t get overshadowed.
The seafood page abounds with preparations that aren’t common in Texas, like a sort of mild seafood variation on ma po tofu in which shrimp, carrots and peas stand in for pork and runny duck egg yolks take the place of chili sauce ($15). Soft tofu coated in an electric orange sauce might be one of the least photogenic meals in Dallas, but that’s not the point. The point is that you can dig to the bottom of the plate, find an uneaten shrimp and marvel that it’s not even slightly chewy.
Tasty House’s very lightly fried string beans are pulled out of the pan while still crisp, so they snap satisfyingly between your teeth, and they’re coated with garlic and pepper ($9). They are almost as addicting as the storm fish fillets.
But the star dishes here come in two categories: Sichuanese street food and rice crusts. The street food ranges from miniature hot pots brimming with meats, vegetables and wood ear mushrooms — you can customize your ingredients — to, yes, sizzling pig brains ($9). There are skewers of fried snacks, too, although the word fried does not necessarily mean battered and deep-fried. Fried squid ($1.50 per skewer), for instance, is nicely tender, and fried cauliflower ($1 per skewer) has just the right crispness.
One of the more unusual choices — offered at just one other Dallas-area restaurant, Fatni BBQ — is fish tofu ($1.50 for a fried skewer). These skewered and fried bites mimic the look and texture of firm tofu, but they’re made with fish meat instead.
The street food bites get at the heart of owner Vanessa Liu’s mission at Tasty House.
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“We want to bring our hometown’s street food here,” she says. “We try to keep the original taste.” She cites the mini hot pots as examples.
But the dish that turned heads on our visits was a traditional preparation in which meaty stews are poured at the table from a pot onto a platter of sizzling-hot rice cakes. Called rice crust, this is a full sensory experience in a plate: the hiss of the hot squares of rice as the waiter ladles over sauce, the combination of crisp and crumbly textures under the vegetables, the sight of steam curling away. Choices include beef ($13), served in a brown gravy with wood ear mushrooms, and “three delicacies,” a seafood combination in which shrimp and snap peas crown the rice ($13). We slightly preferred the savoriness of the former, but it is a matter of taste.
There’s much more to try at Tasty House — on our next visit, we’ll be ordering one of Liu’s top recommendations for a traditional Sichuan fish dish, the twice-cooked fish that is marinated, fried and then stir-fried — but so far, nothing at this young restaurant has disappointed. Plano’s Chinese food scene is expanding so quickly that even the most dedicated diner can have a hard time keeping up. Even in that crowd, Tasty House stands out with a personality all its own.
Tasty House, 2901 N. Central Expressway, Suite 190. 469-782-2818. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day but Wednesday.