Dy­namic fla­vors shine at Red Pep­per Sichuan Bistro

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - LIFE & TRAVEL - By Christina Tkacik

People have been telling me lately about Red Pep­per Sichuan Bistro, which one reader de­scribed in an email as “the most un-Tow­son of restau­rants.”

The new spot comes from Ping Wu, owner of Charles Vil­lage’s Ori­ent Express, which opened decades ago as a car­ry­out of­fer­ing Chi­nese-Amer­i­can classics like beef and broc­coli and Gen­eral Tso’s chicken, the sort of main­stays people rarely eat in China. But, as Wu told me through a trans­la­tor, with in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional stu­dents com­ing to neigh­bor­ing Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, de­mand has risen for some true Sichuan dishes at Ori­ent Express. Wu re­al­ized there was ap­petite for some­thing big­ger and bet­ter. This year, she opened Red Pep­per.

Sichuan is named for the western, agri­cul­tur­ally rich prov­ince of China that bor­ders Ti­bet. Its food history dates back more than 1,000 years, and is known for a mul­ti­tude of ex­cit­ing and com­plex fla­vor com­bi­na­tions. But too of­ten, Wu says, Sichuan food is re­duced to sim­ply mean “spicy,” a short­hand for in­fa­mous Sichuan pep­per­corns that cause the tongue to go numb.

While those fla­vors are present at Red Pep­per, there’s a lot more on the menu, too. In fact, there are more than 100 dishes and count­ing. The kitchen is led by head chef Zexin Zheng, who hails from Chengdu, the cap­i­tal of Sichuan. For Sichuan fans in Bal­ti­more, it’s a game-changer.

First im­pres­sions: In­side, the eatery feels equal parts gath­er­ing place, restau­rant and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion. Fur­ni­ture doesn’t typ­i­cally talk, but at Red Pep­per, it speaks vol­umes. Tra­di­tional Chi­nese ta­bles in mod­ern-look­ing blonde oak — Wu had them cus­tom made in China’s He­bei prov­ince — show that this is a restau­rant that strad­dles both old and new. The menu is a hard­cover pic­ture book with a thought­ful ex­pla­na­tion of the restau­rant and its cui­sine.

Must tries: I eat with my eyes, point­ing to pic­tures of things that look delicious and or­der them. This ap­proach leads me to a sump­tu­ous plat­ter of crunchy rice crusts with spicy beef and chili pep­pers ($19.95), as well as those numb­ing Sichuan pep­per­corns. The dy­namic mix of fla­vors and tex­tures is like an itch in the mouth — once you scratch it, you want more.

We de­vour Sichuan classics like mapo tofu ($12.95), a com­fort­ing and spicy braised tofu, and dan dan noo­dles ($8.95). Is the room get­ting warmer, or is it the food? At a cer­tain point we find our­selves re­mov­ing sweaters. The spici­ness of Sichuan food, I’ve read, has to do with the damp­ness of the cli­mate there, and the be­lief that people should main­tain equi­lib­rium with their en­vi­ron­ment by eat­ing hot food.

Since when are green beans ad­dic­tive? When they are sauteed till shriv­elly with bits of ground pork in a Sichuan method called gan bian, they are ($13.95). We fin­ish the meal off with a sour cab­bage soup with fish filet ($13.95), your re­minder that the Chi­nese in­vented sauer­kraut, and that a tart soup makes a won­der­ful di­ges­tive aid to a rich and fill­ing meal.

In­stead of for­tune cook­ies, why not try some of the restau­rant’s pump­kin pie ($8.95), not-too-sweet dumplings that are crispy on the out­side?

Spe­cial touches: A few items may seem too ex­otic for novices. Bull­frog, a pop­u­lar dish in Sichuan, is on the car­ry­out menu, served three dif­fer­ent ways. For those re­luc­tant to plunge head­first into such del­i­ca­cies, Gen­eral Tso’s chicken and beef and broc­coli are also avail­able, as well as a won­der­ful kung pao chicken ($14.95) that would surely have made Ge­orge Costanza sweat.

Pro tip: Por­tions are big; for max­i­mum en­joy­ment, take a group of friends so you can try tons of dif­fer­ent dishes. This is the way Chi­nese food is meant to be eaten any­way, ac­cord­ing to ex­pert Fuch­sia Dun­lop.

The restau­rant is still lack­ing a liquor li­cense, so bring your own, or sip tea in­stead.

Bot­tom line: Devotees of Sichuan food will rave about Red Pep­per. To new­bies, the ex­pe­ri­ence is likely to ex­pand your palate and per­haps your ap­proach to food. Where else have you eaten a meal that was at turns hot, sour, sweet and numb­ing?

Serves lunch and din­ner daily. 11 Al­legheny Ave., Tow­son. 410-832-7333. red­pep­permd.com.

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Dan dan noo­dles at Red Pep­per Sichuan Bistro in Tow­son.

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Sour cab­bage fish fil­let soup at Red Pep­per Sichuan Bistro in Tow­son.

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