Serious Eats: Chicago
Knockout Noodles: Sichuan Pork Belly Noodles at Big Bowl
Perhaps this mission was doomed from the word go. I was in the grips of one of my frequent spicy-food cravings recently while walking through the Gold Coast, an area stacked with dining options but not recognized as a mecca for capsaicin-friendly cuisine. I trudged on, hoping for inspiration. Then, out of the blue, a shining idol appeared in the distance, sprouting chopsticks only a giant could use. It was a big bowl atop, well, a Big Bowl. Chain restaurants typically go easy on the spice to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but then again, Big Bowl traffics in cuisines—namely Chinese and Thai—that are known for turning up the heat. Maybe my spice-hunting wouldn't be ill-fated, after all, I thought.
The menu offered promising signs; an icon showing the silhouette of a man's head breathing fire, which appeared next to several dishes, referred to a lengthy warning about excessive spice. I ordered the so-marked Sichuan pork belly ($13.95), which is wok-tossed with wide wheat noodles, fresno chiles, scallions, and Big Bowl's Sichuan sauce. By this point I was anticipating fireworks, but ultimately they didn't materialize.
What I got was a very good plate of noodles, with elements I liked and others I didn't. The pork belly, while plentiful, was thinly sliced and heavily charred, to the extent that the flavor of burnt carbon somewhat overpowered the bacon flavor. The noodles were a bit heavy and overcooked, but had soaked up a lot of tasty, black-pepper-kissed sauce. Quick little blips of ginger were a pleasant surprise, while the sizable nuggets of garlic here and there were less so; if you aren't careful, biting into one can throw a bitter, off-flavor in the works. Fragrant and earthy cilantro sprigs: good and plentiful; red pepper: largely M.IA. So I found myself adding spoon after spoon of red chile paste to manually up my Scoville count.
And, alas, my spice cravings persist. If you know where I can find the hottest noodles in town, please let me know!