Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Little Pepper

Katie successfully organized the vanimals for a trip out to Flushing for Sichuan food at Spicy & Tasty, but hours before departure, a new option opened up: Anthony, who had come with us on a previous Spicy & Tasty trip, had become so enamoured with Sichuan food that he had returned repeatedly to the area and eaten at a handful of the restaurants. He recommended Little Pepper as his favorite--it was smaller, cheaper, and less well-known, and the waiters reportedly spoke absolutely zero English. So we readied ourselves for a lot of pointing at what other tables had and drove Queensward, arriving around 8pm on Monday night.

The restaurant was not crowded at all, which was nice--I've definitely had some long waits at Spicy & Tasty--and our waiter, a young man (who had been hurriedly beckoned over by the older woman who had taken the first few steps towards us before seeing our non-Chinese faces and freezing), greeted us in perfect English.

Priya and Katie had both done some research, and between the two of them we cobbled together an order synthesized from Chowhound tips, food blogs, Anthony's recommendations, and whatever caught our eye on the menu. We ordered quite a bit for seven people, but from experience, we tend to eat a lot at places like this...

I borrowed Priya's camera to snap some pictures, but while that means the pictures are of much better quality than usual, it also means I bungled the settings a little so some came out too blurry to use. Oh well.

The first item we received--moments after ordering--was the braised sliced fish in spicy soup base. It had come recommended by Anthony and was spot-on. The bright red broth was indeed spicy and packed full of bean sprouts and super-tender pieces of boneless fish. We were hungry, and greedily picked it over until (minutes later) the other dishes began to arrive.

One of the things I was most excited about was a simple cold appetizer: cucumbers with mashed garlic. We'd ordered it multiple times at S&T only to be told they had run out. I'm not entirely sure how (or even if) it differs from the simple cucumber salads I make at home, but it was delicious and a great counterpoint to the blazing málà taste of the other dishes. (no pic; too blurry)

An order (12) of pork dumplings didn't resemble the fried dumpling-house dumplings I'd been expecting; they were almost like delicate ravioli with a white, light but dense (does that make sense?) center lacking scallions or any of the common attributes of pork dumplings. A favorite of almost everybody, we ended up fighting over the last two and perhaps should have gotten a double order.

Spicy Sichuan cold noodles were a nice starter, although some of us expressed "eh" about them. I did miss the Spicy & Tasty dan dan noodles and chengdu noodles, but I thought these were a worthy substitute.

One of my favorite dishes of the night was something that Katie had been keen to order: lamb with hot and spicy sauce with cumin. This was one of the hottest dishes of the night, absolutely packed with pepper, and had a very strong roasted-cumin flavor as well. It didn't taste like anything I would envision as "Chinese" food--more Central Asian, or Uighur, or who knows? It was fantastic, and even my eventual cumin-and-pepper burps later didn't put me off of it. I couldn't identify one of the vegetables--it looked and tasted like celery, but was a bit tougher/woodier, and instead of being "U"-shaped in the cross section like celery is, it was a hollow tube. Some Sichuan variation on celery, I guess.

The tea-smoked duck at Spicy & Tasty had been fantastic, with a pink smoke ring on the outside... and we revisited it with an order here. We ordered "shredded tea-smoked duck with ginger," but because it looks hacked into pieces but not shredded, I wonder if they gave us the "half tea-smoked duck" instead. It was pretty good, but a little overly smoky (Priya didn't have any, but I'm sure she wouldn't've liked it) and not quite up to the S&T standard.

Another favorite of the night was the Sichuan style sausage with leeks. We'd been debating over ordering the sausage, or possibly enhanced pork, or maybe twice-cooked pork... but then the waiter told us that the sausage was house-made by their chef, and that sealed the deal for us. I'm glad we did--it turned out to be one of the best dishes of the night, salty and porky, and I had to duel for the leftovers with one of the others (I lost).

Ma po doufu
was a must-order; I hadn't ever had it before, and the others were all gushing about it, and I'm really glad they did. It was perfect, with shivering delicate pieces of soft tofu and spiced ground pork in a deeply oily and spicy sauce. Out of all the dishes, this one was the most málà; even after a single spoonful, my tongue felt like an alien entity, and a drink of cold water brought it alive in a weird tingly way. I brought the leftovers to school for lunch today, and Stan watched with envy and said that ma po doufu was one of his favorite foods. I see why now.

For vegetables on the side, we got pea shoot leaves (delicious, refreshing, welcome) and dried sauteed string beans. Priya wanted to compare Little Pepper's string beans with S&T's amazing dish of the same name, and while these were superb, we felt that they didn't quite stack up; S&T's are less oily, more withered, more mixed with salty accoutrements... (I know that makes it sound like S&T's are worse, but those are all meant to be good things). Still, some of our tablemates disagreed.

Almost as an afterthought, we tacked on an order of crust of cooked rice with pork. The waiter warned us that it wasn't spicy (he knew what we were looking for), but we didn't care. It was very nice, but compared to the other food, a bit bland. However, the crust of rice made the dish excel. I'd thought it might be like Iranian tahdig, but it wasn't--it was more like large clumps of crunchy rice that added an amazing texture to a mouthful of sauce-soaked vegetables and pork. It was almost like blobs of Rice Krispie Treat, but not sweet.

Afterward, stuffed, we paid (only around $23-26 each, with a beer!) and headed outside; I found a stray string of dental floss in my pocket (don't ask) and rudely flossed in front of the sign while Priya tried to snap a picture.

For the significantly lower prices (for example: tea-smoked duck at LP $9.95, at S&T $11.95), lack of a wait, and at-least-equal food (sometimes better, sometimes worse), I'd have to say I want to go back to Little Pepper again next time we crave Sichuan.

1 comment:

Sophie said...

the mapo tofu looks so delish!

this is really one of the simplest dishes to make anywhere in the world so long as you can get hold of tofu and sauce package.

Here I bought a sauce pack so as to skip all the seasonings! and i will try this friday after work.