In the annex behind Super Cao Nguyen grocery store, tucked behind the ornate fountain full of terra cotta goldfish, shooting water into arches over an enormous teapot centerpiece, past the ever-changing seasonal surplus of potted persimmon trees or crated cookware, and at the end of a brick hallway, you will find two glass doors—unassuming and modestly marked. A gold foiled vinyl reads “Tsubaki Szechuan...Closed Wednesdays.”
If you had imagined, like I had—a dark, bamboo-riddled shop, open kitchen filled with spice and smoke and vaguely religious artwork, an elderly chef, eyes down on the grill—well, you couldn’t be further from the truth. But rest assured, you are in good company. A few too many hours with David Chang on Netflix, one too many viewings of Jiro, and I am overly stimulated with an excess of food pornography, no longer able to perform for the average interior.
Tsubaki’s spare dining room is lit like a doctor’s office, the ceiling tile hiding an excess of bright bulbs, reflecting off the tan tile floor and unassuming black tabletops. The plain white cookware and paper-wrapped chopsticks might feel like a missed opportunity. The menu features snapshots of each dish with a corresponding number, a kindness to a community clearly unfamiliar with the relevant vocabulary. A single red pepper icon alerts the reader to a mild spice; a group of three indicates a rough time for the light of heart, a fair challenge for those interested in a risqué pick.
Yet despite the spare décor, Tsubaki has been slowly building an underground reputation as one of the best meals in the city and a subtle staple in the culinary community. On any given night you might find one kitchen crew or another gathered together at a table, from Chef Vuong Nguyen (Bonjour, Guernsey Park) or the Nonesuch team, table spread with Tsubaki’s full menu, sharing a family meal after a long stretch of service.
An electric jolt to the tongue. An inexplicable high. The endowment of courage. In its truest form and through proper execution, the peppercorn, by numbing the tongue, grants the consumer the ability to gain and sustain the strength of palette to eat even the most perilous of peppers.
Tsubaki is run by Peter and Mandy Liu, along with their business partner, Henry Yang. Peter stands tall in his crisp white chef's coat, clean-shaven with the shadow of a small mustache and a tall, starched chef’s hat. Mandy is often found up front, greeting the guests with a kind smile and a knowing nod. Peter and Mandy first met Henry in New York City, where they were running a small Szechuan kitchen just east of Central Park. There, they received overwhelming praise from the community, crafting a menu that featured cuisine native the south-central Sichuan region of China, where they were both raised.
Mandy described the original NYC location as “busy, full of students.” This amounted to a great deal of business, but came with the stress and pressure of constant demand. Yang had since moved to Oklahoma, opening a handful of spaces, including a sushi place and hibachi that bore the Tsubaki name. Late-night conversations between the old friends became less filled with the ‘what-if’ and more focused on the ‘when.’ After 10 years in Manhattan, the Lius moved to Oklahoma, looking to trade in their go-go-go lifestyle for something more relaxed.
Tsubaki Szechuan opened late fall, 2017. When I ask what the Luis were up to before New York, I was met with a tight smile and a, "We were in New York for ten years." While there was a slight language barrier between us, the meaning here was clarified in tone. Tsubaki is looking forward, not back, uninterested in discussing the past. The only tradition you will find here comes on the plate, and as such, the message is clear as crystal.
On its nose, when described as both process and execution, Szechuan/Sichuan cooking may come across as novel. I, like many in the OKC community, had never encountered the Sichuan peppercorn, though I had heard of its culinary lore. Depending on the person and the day, it carries a number of mystic powers—some true, some truer still. An electric jolt to the tongue. An inexplicable high. The endowment of courage. In its truest form and through proper execution, the peppercorn, by numbing the tongue, grants the consumer the ability to gain and sustain the strength of palette to eat even the most perilous of peppers.
Sichuan peppercorn has a unique effect on the tongue. The closest I could liken the effect is an experience I had as a child. My sister had persuaded me to put a 9-volt battery on my tongue. It sent a quick shock through my taste buds and, at first, scared me. Then again. Once more. It was a feeling I'd never felt; while not pleasant or unpleasant, it was new each time. The Sichuan peppercorn has a similar result, and Chinese cooks have used this to their advantage for generations, numbing the tongue to allow for the exploration of other spices. Suddenly you are able to taste wasabi or red pepper or chili pepper without the insufferable burn. Suddenly you can explore the notes of each, sans the painful sweats and strain of heart, focusing on their interplay with other ingredients.
A disclaimer: this may sound great, but don't get me wrong, the spice is still there. If you are unable to handle a great deal of spice, this will not grant you some form of magical strength. If you would feel comfortable with a dish in the one-pepper realm, try bumping it to a two. If you are a two, try a three.
This is the part of the piece where I wrap things up, tell you what to order and when to go, and it is perhaps the part I am having the most difficulty in writing. Because the true answer is "go anytime. Order anything." There is a reason you will see the simple tables lined with some of the best chefs this city has to offer. Tsubaki has its priorities well in line.
You may be adventurous, ordering the fish filet, served with head and tail intact, eyes staring up at you from the plate, smeared with a sweet soy drizzle and peppered with fresh veggies. Or you may be brave and order the Shui Zhu Yu, Sichuan boiled fish served in a bowl full to the brim with the traditional red, spiced-oil broth, topped with aromatics such as garlic and onion and ginger. Or you may be safe, ordering the spectacular Steamed Dumplings, a familiar dish of General Tso’s or Dan Dan noodles or Mapo Tofu. Regardless, you will leave full and happy, now hip to one of the best meals in town.
1117 NW 25th St. Find them on Facebook.