These surprisingly good chicken strips, flavored with Sichuan peppercorns, are inspired by the flavors of Chengdu and Nashville.

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Sichuan Hot Chicken
Credit: Courtesy of Panda Express

Sichuan food, from quick-service restaurants to avant-garde tasting menus, is trending in Los Angeles. So on Thursday, I drove to a strip mall in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and tried something called “Sichuan hot chicken.” At a Panda Express.

It turns out that the massive Chinese-American fast-casual chain is testing chicken strips that are made with Sichuan peppercorns. This crispy white-meat chicken, which I was tipped off to by a story in Los Angeles Magazine, is being served at select Panda Express locations in L.A., Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas through December 4. I’m happy to report that the chicken is legitimately mala, which means it makes your mouth tingle. This habit-forming numbing effect is different from what’s traditionally considered spicy. Mala, of course, is one of the qualities that makes Sichuan food so good.

But these chicken strips are also legitimately spicy, at least for a fast-casual chain. Panda Express, which is based in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley, gives you the option of ordering its hot chicken “extra spicy.” “Extra spicy” at Panda means something with approximately the burn of, say, the “medium” at Howlin’ Ray’s, L.A.’s go-to for Nashville-style hot chicken.

This is a relevant comparison. Panda Express says that its new chicken was inspired by a trip chefs took to Chengdu, but that it’s also a nod to Nashville-style hot chicken. Not incidentally, Howlin’ Ray’s, where in-the-know regulars understand that “medium-plus” is already significantly spicy and that you order anything hotter than this at your own peril, is launching chicken tenders on Halloween.

Panda’s hot chicken is a great upgrade for fast-casual food. Unlike many other Panda dishes, there’s no sweet sauce. The order of hot chicken I got at a Panda Express in Woodland Hills wasn’t sticky or gloppy. Unlike something made with bite-size pieces of meat, this was easy to eat with my hands. It was also a lot better than KFC’s “Nashville Hot Chicken.”

But this is still fast-casual for the masses, so Panda’s hot chicken is obviously much less aggressive than the popcorn chicken (laziji) you’ll find at traditional Sichuan restaurants. There’s no mountain of chiles, garlic, and peppercorns. Panda’s chicken comes unadorned. If you like spicy food, this is easy to eat.

Half an hour after I ate this chicken, my mouth was still pleasantly tingling. That’s the thing about mala. It lingers.

If you want to try Panda’s Sichuan hot chicken in L.A., it’s available at the following locations:

18427 Nordhoff St., Northridge

20040½ Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills

5752 Lindero Canyon Road, Westlake Village

17870 Ventura Blvd., Encino

15303 Roscoe Blvd., Van Nuys

14445 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys