Dynamic flavors shine at Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro
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.
Dan dan noodles at Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro in Towson.
Sour cabbage fish fillet soup at Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro in Towson.