Winter has us craving the heat of Sichuan cuisine. Fiery chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, with their gently numbing tingle, are antidotes to Jack Frost. So we head out Route 9 to Framingham and find spare ambience, quirky menu translations, but ultimately satisfying Sichuan cuisine.
Red Pepper opened in a strip mall in 2007 and is now owned by business partners Bing Jiao and Hua Chun Zhang. Originally from Chongqing in southwestern China, Jiao and Zhang, who is head chef, owned a restaurant in Pennsylvania before relocating to this region. The restaurant occupies the first floor. The second floor is owned by a Brazilian group that runs a nightclub late on weekends.
On a Friday evening recently, the place looks completely dark from the outside. You would never know the restaurant is open for business. Inside, the dining area, painted a jarring shade of pink, is amply lighted. Tables are full of Mandarin-speaking families and friends digging into generous portions.
Cold noodles in sour and sweet sauce ($5.95) is neither sour nor sweet. Wheat noodles are garnished with scallions, dressed in sesame oil, and drizzled with a refreshing splash of vinegar. Another cold appetizer, sliced beef and tendon with chili sauce ($7.50), features thinly sliced meats lacquered with bright red chili oil and garnished with cilantro.
But it’s the hot dishes — those that are piping hot and also spicy, that we’re here for. Cumin flavored beef with chili sauce ($14.95) combines spice-rubbed dry-fried beef with onion, red chilies, and scallions. It is excellent with hot white rice. Stir-fried pea leaves ($12.95) and a springy green vegetable called sponge gourd ($10.95) are pristinely fresh. Sliced fish in a house spicy sauce ($21.95), a weekly special, is a recommendation of our server. These chunks of bone-in tilapia are lightly breaded, then fried with glistening dried chilies, whole garlic cloves, and crushed Sichuan peppercorns. The heat is balanced by deep smoky flavors. Beware of fish bones.
On a second weeknight visit, the place is deserted. It looks like one of the wait staff has to tear himself away from a basketball game on his iPad to take our order. Again, the food is expertly prepared and delicious. Shredded pork with celery and dry tofu ($10.95) is a mild, savory dish featuring julienned meat and vegetables. Asparagus lettuce ($10.95), known in Asian grocery stores as celtuce, reminds us of mild sauteed escarole.
We almost bypass a section of the menu, thinking “black curded” means stinky fermented tofu. A companion explains that these dishes feature whole fermented black beans, more umami than pungent. So we order the black curded pork kidney ($11.95), which includes wood ear mushrooms, tender bamboo shoots, and chilies. For those not fond of organ meats, this dish can be made with fish, clams, or twice-cooked pork.
Not everything is as good. Lamb and bean noodles in spicy sauce ($14.95), a hot pot full of clear noodles in broth, includes skin-on mutton that is extremely gamy. Dishes can be inconsistent from one visit to the next. One time, crispy cumin fish ($14.95) is full of the earthy seasoning; another time, completely devoid of it.
We end with the mystifyingly named “winery sweet ball soup for four” ($6), a slightly fermented sweetened rice porridge that tastes pleasingly good, like diluted rice wine with softened rice grains. A motherly server approaches our table, sees that we have not finished the dessert, and sternly ladles the rest into one of our bowls. “This is good food,” she tells us in Mandarin. “Don’t waste it.”
We heed her advice. Who are we to argue?