Sumptuous Sichuan in Tewksbury
Top Garden is a small, unassuming restaurant across the street from the Tewksbury Country Club. If you don’t live in the area, you probably wouldn’t know it exists. Owner Kevin Chu bought the place eight months ago and though he says business is fine, we have the place to ourselves on three visits. The space is clean, with cloth napkins in bright Easter egg pink, a TV playing the news, and not much else.
It’s a trek for us, a group of Somervillians who could just as easily head to Chinatown, just 3 miles down the road. In Tewksbury, of course, the parking situation is infinitely less stressful. With the first tingly taste of the oily, spicy, and absolutely addictive chili-peanut vinaigrette, we know we’ve made the right decision.
The sauce is ubiquitous at Top Garden and tops three of our favorite cold Sichuan dishes. This section of the menu is a bit misleading, as many of the dishes are actually served warm. First we try roast beef, tongue, and tripe ($7.95), which is indeed cold, and quite delicious. My dining companions are a little timid about this dish until they dip in their chopsticks. By the end, we are all diving into the bowl of tender, thinly sliced beef parts until it is practically licked clean.
Dan dan noodles ($5.95) are round rice noodles topped with ground pork and more of that delicious chili-peanut vinaigrette, this time served warm. On another visit, we try Sichuan pork wontons, delicate little dumplings, each containing a succulent porky meatball and tiny shrimp - and more vinaigrette. This is a remarkable spicy dressing, and though all three dishes are standouts, they are also a vehicle for this delicious sauce, and half the reason we love them.
You can order Americanized Chinese fare too, but we stick to the chef specialties. Alas, there are not many vegetable options on that part of the menu, so we dine on meat-centric meals. Tea-smoked duck ($13.95) is a generous portion of bone-in meat, with delightfully crispy skin and juicy, smoky flesh. You have to eat around the bones, but go ahead and get your hands dirty. Sichuan dry-fried shrimp ($14.95) are crispy and come with a scattering of chopped sauteed peppers and onions. The table is split on whether the coating is too heavy, but in happy agreement over the mildly spicy flavor of the tender shrimp.
House dry-hot chicken ($9.95) is one of the more fiery dishes, with lots of savory flavor and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers, stir-fried with tiny pieces of crispy chicken. Sichuan-style tofu with minced pork ($7.95) is less spicy than expected and comforting, with soft tofu and leeks in a mild chili sauce that’s good over white rice ($1.25 to $2.50). Speaking of comfort, Sichuan beef noodle soup ($7.25), mild with tender beef tendon and rice noodles in a delicate broth, is the perfect antidote for a winter cold.
On the back page of the menu you’ll find one of the best deals around: twin lobsters ($17.95) or three ($24.95), hacked up and stir-fried one of several ways, including Cantonese-style or with ginger and scallion. We choose a peppery fried version, which results in a huge platter of succulent, flavorful crustaceans, with a thin fried coating that locks in the juices. Gnawing on the spicy, crunchy pieces feels hedonistic, and is less labor intensive than cracking it open yourself. It’s hard to mess with steamed lobsters and drawn butter, but all of us (all lifelong New Englanders) agree this Chinese lobster is the best we’ve tried.
We pile into the car with full bellies, slightly numb mouths, and a tinge of regret. To satisfy another craving of this delicious Sichuan food, we have to head back to Tewksbury. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen during rush hour.
Catherine Smart can be reached at email@example.com.