Food review: Chilispot knows how to do Sichuan right with well-made fiery dishes

G.A. Benton
Special to The Columbus Dispatch
Sauteed vermicelli with spicy minced pork from Chilispot in the Kenny Centre Mall

Back when “Sichuan” was almost always spelled “Szechuan” in Columbus restaurants, referencing the southwestern Chinese province generally meant that the food being served would contain chile. Unfortunately, in those days, authentic Sichuan flavors would rarely accompany the botanical heat.

While recently enjoying a wide range of intense and delicious dishes from Chilispot — a terrific new Sichuan specialist — a smile formed on my delightfully overstimulated mouth as I thought about how far Chinese food has come in Columbus.        

Chilispot doesn’t call much attention to its accomplished Sichuan leanings from its website or its name or the simple but modern, spare and tasteful space it occupies in a Kenny Centre Mall building whose exterior still bears the title of its predecessor, “Mr. Pot.”

Mapo tofu

Sampling Chilispot’s often fiery yet nuanced, party-in-your-mouth food will definitely grab your attention, though. Numerous real-deal Sichuan dishes are cooked there that exhibit the telltale yin-and-yang qualities famously described by the Chinese term “mala” — a coupling of “ma” (which means “numbing,” and is an effect produced on mouths by Sichuan peppercorns) and “la” (chile-detonated “spicy hot”).

Newcomers should note that Chilispot’s large online menu seems to cater to Sichuan-food veterans because it’s free of descriptions. Still, cuisine classics that are somewhat locally popular are showcased, and these — along with lesser-known home runs — are depicted in color photographs accompanied by their “Google-able” titles in pinyin (the linguistic system of phonetically transcribing Chinese into the Roman alphabet).   

Besides, Chilispot’s kitchen nails most everything. Among the relatively well-known dishes it skillfully prepares are its bold and dynamic Mapo tofu ($11.95) — a boatload of soft bean curd submerged in a scalding hot chile-oil bath accented with ginger, ground pork, fermented bean paste and Sichuan peppercorns; nutty and inhalable Chengdu dandan noodle ($8.95) — al dente pasta enriched by chile oil and ground pork brightened by black vinegar; addictive Chongqing spicy popcorn chicken ($14.95) — an enormous amount of crisp-yet-tender chicken nuggets stir-fried with countless little firecracker-like dried red chiles, peanuts and face-tingling Sichuan peppercorns that lend floral and citrus notes; Sichuan wontons ($6.95) — a generous serving of garlic-kissed dumplings (with hefty ground-pork fillings and delicate wrappers) swamped in chile oil leavened by vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns; and the huge and explosive sauteed lamb with cumin ($15.99) — a vibrant and incendiary treatment for tender meat strips with onions, peppers and faint sweet notes.

I was also very fond of the vermicelli with spicy minced pork ($11.95), Chilispot’s take on a great Sichuan dish colloquially called “ants climbing a tree” (aka “ma yi shang shu” in pinyin, and listed as “mayishangshu” in the caption to Chilispot’s corresponding online photo). It’s a fiery but tangy, fragrant and enticingly complex culinary thrill-ride made with ground pork (the “ants”) and glass noodles (the “tree”).  

Dry pot organic cauliflower

Looking for something relatively mild? The excellent sizzling beef with black pepper ($15.95) was a Midwestern-palate-friendly crowd-pleaser that conjured pepper-happy Chinese fajitas flattered by a chuggable sauce. The braised Shanghai greens with black mushroom ($10.95) — baby bok choy and big shiitake caps swimming in an umami-rich sauce — was another chile-less but delicious dish.

If you like chile with your veggies, though, I highly recommend the ginger-kissed and pork-belly-fortified dry pot organic cauliflower ($15.95); the garlicky and appropriately oily (which is pretty much on brand here) dry fried string beans enhanced with ground pork ($11.95); plus the zesty and naturally sweet sauteed cabbage ($10.95). 

Among the locally rare Chinese desserts offered are the lightly sweet and texturally engaging pan-fried rice cakes with brown sugar ($6.95): hefty cylinders with crusted sheaths, glutinous interiors and toasted sesame seed sprinkles that seem designed to extinguish the hurts-so-good heat generated by Chilispot’s impressive savory dishes.   

At a glance

Where: Chilispot

Location: 1178 Kenny Centre Mall, Northwest Side

Contact: 614-929-5565,