No two restaurants are alike, but we sure love to compare like-minded concepts — particularly when they sit on the same block. Ask a Somerville resident to choose between Sound Bites and Ball Square Cafe and you’ll get an earful. In Jamaica Plain, allegiances are made to either Blue Nile Restaurant or Ethiopian Cafe, two Ethiopian restaurants that sit a mere 150 feet away from each other. People love a good rivalry, even if it’s a manufactured one.
Over the summer, Ella Chen opened Sichuan Cuisine, a Chinese restaurant on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown that took over the former Tiki In space. Sparsely decorated with a white and grey color scheme and minimal decor, the dining room is filled with a handful of tables and a couple of lucky cat figurines. More notable is its location: Sichuan Cuisine sits a block away from Home Taste, an already-popular Sichuan restaurant with a dedicated fanbase. I’m an occasional frequenter of Home Taste, but I wanted to know: Was the newcomer worthy of the same adulation as its neighbor? And was it even fair to compare the two?
A few weeks ago, I met up with my brother and his fiancé for dinner at Sichuan Cuisine, where we were given a small dish of spicy cabbage to snack on while pouring over the gargantuan menu. Though its size is intimidating, the menu follows a familiar layout — categories broken up by appetizers, noodles, various types of proteins, and chef’s specials like mala spicy chicken wings, salt and pepper shrimp, and spicy aromatic pork blood. Sichuan Cuisine features more offal than its nearby counterpart; turn the pages and, in addition to pork blood, you’ll find beef aorta and pork intestine and tripe.
One of its main draws is the mala spicy pot, which can be ordered wet (like hot pot) or dry (like a stir fry). We went with dry, and were instructed to choose at least five ingredients for the pot from a list of meat, vegetables, and seafood, concocting a medley of baby bok choy, shrimp, pork belly, potato, and broccoli, all of which came tossed in chili oil and sesame seeds. It’s a fantastic DIY type of dish, excellent for sharing among a big group, and, when ordered “medium” hot, leaves enough of a tingling sensation on your tongue to last throughout the meal. For those in search of even more heat, the beef with cumin, one of Sichuan Cuisine’s “chef’s specials,” will do the trick. This was my favorite out of the dishes we tried, a plate of delightfully tender beef coated in pungent cumin, with a deep, rich flavor offset by the slightly tart green peppers that accompanied it.
Home Taste, which husband-and-wife owners Kai and Ying Chen opened in 2015 (a second location opened in Arlington in 2018) has mala pots as well, but as most fans of the restaurant will tell you, you’re here for the hand-pulled noodles: chewy, never-ending strands that can be ordered with spicy hot oil or sliced lamb or fried bean sauce. Home Taste’s noodle game is exemplary, and even if you don’t order the ever-popular spicy hot oil seared noodles, there are still winners on the menu, like sha-cha noodle soup or home-style lo mien.
You’re also here for the Chinese burgers, or rou jia mo, a street food snack which originated in Northern China’s Shanxi province, and which feature stewed meat packed between two thin, grilled buns. Order them with pork, beef, cumin lamb, or minced chicken, all of which are cooked with over 20 spices. They’re fun, easy to devour, and wildly complex.
If Sichuan Cuisine is a bit lacking in the decor department, Home Taste is a blast of color, with walls painted bright orange and plastered with wallpaper depicting the restaurant’s dishes. On a recent visit, diners steadily rotated in and out, most picking up dinner they had called in earlier. “You guys are awesome,” I overheard one man say as he collected his takeout order. “You’re my favorite.”
I agree with his sentiment, but I hope he gives Sichuan Cuisine a chance, too. It can be comforting to settle into favorites, ignoring new restaurants that, at first glance, seem to offer everything you could get at your go-to spot. “Why should I visit X,” you might ask, “when I already love Y?”
Because supporting one may also support the other. A strategic premise dubbed the “cluster theory” indicates that focusing similar industries or concepts in one area creates less, not more, competition, and draws in like-minded customers that contribute to increased business. It’s why Chinatowns and Little Italys thrive, and why, quite possibly, Chilacates owner Socrates Abreu has no qualms about opening a third Chilacates outpost in Jamaica Plain. Essentially: Build it and they will come; build more of it and more will come.
Watertown now has two fantastic Sichuan restaurants. Yes, you may love Home Taste for its hand-pulled noodles and Chinese burgers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit Sichuan Cuisine for its mala spicy pot or beef with cumin. You don’t have to pick a side — you can embrace both, and still leave room to enthusiastically welcome the next Sichuan restaurant that lands on Mt. Auburn Street.
Home Taste; 58 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown; Sundays–Thursdays from 11:15 a.m.–10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 11:15 a.m.–11 p.m.; hometastema.com
Sichuan Cuisine; 30 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown; Sundays–Thursdays from 11 a.m.–10 p.m., sichuancuisinewatertown.com