Friday, April 2, 2010
Dining Out Sichuan Gourmet, Billerica: Some like it hot
My search for authentic Chinese food is never ending, starting from the first time my dad brought home white cartons of steaming fragrance from the noodle shop in Chicago. I have never forgotten the lo mein with tiny shrimp, with its delicate shimmer of hot oil, the hot salt smell of pork strips and the lacy-edged egg foo yong, capturing both dinner and breakfast in its sweet onion and bamboo shoot omelet.
The best known of Chinese dishes, chop suey, is roughly translated from Chinese characters as meaning “many things” and “bits and pieces,” which describes how the Chinese eat – a huge variety of dishes based as much on ingenuity as availability, a mixture of protein, vegetables, grains and spices while taking care with both taste and texture. Initially, Chinese food was Americanized, made sweeter, but the emergence of authentic, regionally correct restaurants is a welcome sign.
Sichuan Gourmet is a small restaurant in a paper-strewn strip mall next to K- Mart. The menu is extensive, with both Sichuan (spicy) and Cantonese (mild, light) dishes, and a “delicacy” menu worth trying. Pepper icons denote level of heat for each spicy dish. Once I had finished eating, I realized what the peppers really meant – one pepper denotes spicy; two, hot; and ordering a three-pepper dish calls for a paramedic to be on hand.
The spicy fried chicken wings (two peppers) were delicious, dry/crispy with a coating of red pepper sauce that was more like a rub. The heat was a warm glow in the mouth and more than bearable (I am not a fan of really spicy food). The Peking ravioli was a disappointment, the dough encasing the succulent pork balls too thick and a bit tough. The hot and sour soup was terrific, (one pepper), with a great dollop of vinegary finish to counter the hot part. I boldly ordered a three-pepper fish dish, Jin Gu Fish fillets. It comes in a deep red pepper sauce, shiny with oil, and bright green broccoli. The first bite of the fish was deeply gratifying, the taste richly complex with a smoky hint of sesame oil, the aroma redolent of an untold flavor depth ……and then, the incredible mouth-burning, eye-watering, nostril-filling fire-in-the- hole took over. One of my companions had inadvertently swallowed one red pepper and tears streamed down his face; when he could speak, said only “I will be fine.” In a couple of minutes, he was – and finished his fish.
Beef and green peppers was wonderful, a great tasting dish that combined matchstick beef slices, lightly floured and fried, with an aromatic green pepper that crunched in your mouth with the spice radiating to the back of your throat (one pepper). Other one-pepper dishes, such as the Dan Dan noodles, a vermicelli dish with a little minced pork and red pepper emulsion on its top, was lovely, the textures and spices combining for a fun mouthful. The scallops with black pepper sauce came with green veggies and a deep red pepper sauce but the black pepper was largely missing and the scallops had not had time to soak up the multiple flavors of the liquid. Double cooked bacon was a surprise, coming with green peppers and scallions, with a light sauce that allowed the bacon taste to shine through. Sichuan-style meatballs was really a comfort soup, with great big tender pork meatballs, shiitake mushrooms, and bok choy in a pleasant broth. The cold rice noodles with cheng du spicy sauce were tasty but the noodles had a gelatinous, mushy texture that did not appeal to me.
Now for the non-spicy items. The steamed jumbo shrimp with garlic was utterly fresh, the shrimp plump, unseasoned so one could taste its delicate sea flavor, but the mince of raw garlic had a hot metallic taste. General Tso’s chicken was the fried, sweet, sticky chicken nuggets offered by most Chinese restaurants. The House Special Lo Mein was dependably good, with the noodles coated by, but not swimming in, oil, and nice pieces of chicken, shrimp and veggies to make a filling but surprisingly light dish.
All in all, Sichuan Gourmet is the real deal, a local joint with authentic Sichuan cuisine, good value, ample servings and a wine and beer license. Although it is not romantic destination dining, you can always get your tires rotated during dinner. What more could you ask for? ∆
Sichuan Gourmet is located at 502 Boston Rd, Billerica; Monday - Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday - Saturday until 10:30 p.m.; Sunday and holidays noon to 9:30 p.m. Moderate prices.
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