Whenever your server raises an eyebrow at your order and asks "Are you sure?", it's generally an indication that weird deliciousness is to follow. And when you order saliva chicken, chances are you're going to get asked this.
If you don't know what saliva chicken is (a.k.a. cold chicken), I feel super sorry for you. Prepare to be tantalized.
This Szechuan (or Sichuan, but I like Zs) delight may seem off-putting at first glance, but one bite in and I've yet to meet anyone who isn't hooked. It's basically a super savory bright red nuclear oil (very common in Szechuan dishes) with a large hunk of poached-then-chilled chicken swimming atop it, generally sprinkled with scallions, sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, and small slices of garlic and ginger.
It's called saliva chicken because "it's so good, it'll make you your mouth water", but lots of people simply call it "mouthwatering chicken" for a less grotesque approach.
I first encountered this majestic dish at Spicy City on Convoy Street when my friend Morgan ordered it. I had no idea what it was, thought it sounded mildly gross, and picked something far more boring like spicy fried chicken cubes. (In case you couldn't tell by the name of the restaurant, pretty much all Szechuan food is spicy.) Still, I'm never one to turn down trying something new, so upon arrival, with no real expectations, I helped myself to a hunk and dug in.
It was as if I'd never experienced real food before. I struggled to not completely commandeer her meal and gnashed my teeth in despair for having lived three decades without this glorious dish in my life.
It's equal parts umami, spicy and salty, an almost brine-like wash over perfectly cooked, and then washed in an ice bath chicken (Spicy City de-bones it before serving, I'm not sure if that's the traditional method). It's so savory it almost brings a tear to my eye with an indescribable kick at the end that forces you to keep eating until there's nothing left. Then, I pour the remaining sauce over rice so as to not lick the bowl clean like shameless trash monster.
Since then, if I'm not craving a burrito, chances are I'm yearning for saliva chicken. We've since moved on to Spicy House, just down the road on (you guessed it) Convoy Street, and it's finally gotten to the point where they've stopped questioning us every time we order it. Probably because we always order at least one, if not two, saliva chickens as entrees. (Note the photo above during a two-person visit). What's the point of getting it if you have to share?
I've considered making it at home, but it seems like one of those things that I'll just never get quite right enough to justify the process. The experts at Spicy House seem to have the technique pretty much perfected, so why mess with a good thing?
Don't be put off by the thought of a cold meat entree. If you have any love for Asian food, spicy food, or just really incredible food in general, go find your nearest Szechuan restaurant and look for cold or saliva chicken. You won't be sorry!
3860 Convoy Street
San Diego, CA 92111