Original Cuisine isn't Sichuan cuisine... or is it?
At 800 E. Fort Lowell Rd. Ste. 116, a few doors down from Sichuan restaurant China Szechwan, the new restaurant took over the space that previously held Seafood Time. The facade is "minimal" to put it nicely; the sign font is plain and misaligned, which doesn't seem like a hip intentional stylistic decision.
A wise woman once told me: "shady-looking places always have the best food." So I decided to follow the ancient adage and walk in.
I'd never have expected what I saw next.
The walls were painted a vibrant shade of Orange Julius®, while chairs featured portraits of various woodland creatures staring at you with judgment, awkwardly avoiding eye contact, or smoking from pipes.
Furthermore, the floor displayed a rotating projection of the restaurant logo: a cute hybrid of a rice bowl and orange fruit.
Once we were seated with menus, I asked the server if this restaurant was run by the same people who run the Sichuan restaurant Original Cuisine in Mesa.
"Sort of," he said. "The menu's not the same."
I asked more questions to clarify the connection but kept receiving politician-esque non-answers.
Upon inspecting the menu, I noticed something peculiar; nearly every item was labeled "Singapore style." Excited for what would be Tucson's first Singaporean menu, I searched for chili mud crab and chicken rice to no avail.
In fact, the menu appeared distinctly Sichuan. Whole grilled fish and lotus root swimming in chili oil? Check. Poached meat in hot chili oil? Check. Cumin beef? Check. But it was all labeled "Singapore style."
A few dishes even triggered some sensible chuckles: Singapore Style Delicious Duck Feet ($25.99), Singapore Style Overlord Ribs ($15.99), and Fried Lettuce ($10.99).
Other notable dishes include Singapore Style Rabbit with Pickled Pepper and Baby Ginger ($19.99), Singapore Style Pot-Stewed Pig Brain ($15.99), and Singapore Style Copper Pan Cooked Chicken and Frog ($29.99).
I asked what makes all these dishes Singapore-style.
"We have to label everything Singapore-style for... reasons," the server said, finishing with a chortle.
Alright. Moving on.
The Singapore Style Spicy Sliced Beef and Ox Tongue Burger ($9.99) piqued my interest. Maybe it was roujiamo, colloquially known as a Chinese burger? No. After extensive questioning, I figured out it was the Sichuan dish fuqi feipian served with burger buns. While I normally eat it with rice, I figured maybe the burger bun was some sort of fusion revelation like the kimchi taco or ramen burger.
Since the menu translations were comically nonsensical without descriptions, I decided to take the server's recommendations. He pointed out the Original Singapore Style Peppery Chicken ($15.99). It wasn't clear if that meant black pepper or something else, I asked him what was in the dish.
"Lots of red chili pepper, small cubes of fried chicken," he said.
"Oh, like Chongqing chicken?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Exactly."
I also wanted a vegetable, so he recommended the Fried Lettuce ($10.99). I agreed to order it, neglecting the fact I was paying $11 for a side of lettuce.
The Singapore Style Spicy Sliced Beef and Ox Tongue Burger featured the namesake ingredients along with other offal, cilantro, Chinese celery, and peanuts with a numbing spicy sauce.
The offal was on the chewier side, which can be desirable with an "authentic palate," but it might be off-putting to Westerners. The burger buns were just slider buns — eat this dish with rice instead. Arbitrary buns aside, I considered this an excellent interpretation of fuqi feipian; Chinese celery is hard to find in Tucson and it lent a pleasant mild bitterness and crunch to the dish.
As it turns out, the Fried Lettuce appeared to be AA choy, also known as Taiwan lettuce. The leafy greens were stir-fried and served in a delicate sauce with garlic. The tender stems had a flavor similar to romaine and bok choy with an added touch of bitterness. A solid dish, though I find it difficult to justify the $11 price tag. Note that the other vegetable sides were similarly priced.
The star of the show arrived with the Original Singapore Style Peppery Chicken, presented in an unusual textured metallic blue plate on a basket. Crispy cubes of chicken swam in a dry aromatic pool of red peppers, scallions, ginger, garlic, and sesame seeds.
This dish definitely requires chopsticks; forks will have trouble picking out the small cubes of chicken. While you don't eat the chili pepper, take home the leftovers to freeze for future stir-fries, or blend them with vinegar and season for an electric hot sauce.
After eating this essentially Sichuan meal, I thought it was strange that Original Cuisine opened so close to China Szechwan. Then I realized, Original Cuisine is a Sichuan wolf in Singaporean sheep's clothing. I wouldn't be surprised if the "Singapore style" labels and arbitrary hamburger buns were a sneaky way of circumventing a non-compete agreement in the lease. I have no idea why they found it necessary to open in that particular plaza, however.
Regardless of the shenanigans, Original Cuisine still offers exclusive options such as duck feet, pig brains, and "overlord ribs" for adventurous eaters. Hopefully these neighbors can coexist peacefully.
Original Cuisine is located at 800 E. Fort Lowell Rd. Ste. 116. For more information, call (520) 338-2777.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...