Little Pepper Restaurant

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as four posts, published on April 29–30 and May 1–2, 2019.


If ever there were a Sichuan standby, it’s Little Pepper Restaurant at 18-24 College Point Boulevard, Queens. Despite its move from Flushing to College Point, the kitchen continues to turn out solid journeyman work that’s difficult to find fault with, delivering exactly what you’d expect and precisely what you traveled there for. In no particular order:

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)Fresh Cucumber with Mashed Garlic Sauce is an exercise in balance. The dish only seems simple: seeded, smashed Persian cucumbers blanketed with a salty, sweet/sour garlic dressing. Applied with a heavy hand, it would have been suffocating, with a timorous touch, it would have been an afterthought; here, it’s a dexterous thumbs up.

Silken Tofu with Fresh Scallion. Gossamer cubes of cloudlike tofu in a very spicy, somewhat salty sauce dressed with peanuts and fresh scallions. So good.

Sliced Pork Belly with Chili Garlic Sauce from the Appetizer section of the menu. Unquestionably sweet, a little spicy, intensely porky, with a substantial hit of garlic because pork and garlic, right?

Braised Sliced Fish in Spicy Soup Base. Just what it sounds like – melt in your mouth fish in a spicy broth that begs to be poured over rice.


Dan Dan Noodle with Minced Pork – with a nice chew and redolent of málà oil, it’s a classic rendition. Second photo: the obligatory noodle lift.

Smoked Tea Duck Sichuan Style. Does this really need a description? Smoky, crispy, fatty, ducky, infused with star anise and other enhancements, the meat was so tender it practically fell apart. I could have eaten the whole plateful by myself. Next time, I just might.

Tree Mushrooms with Chinese Spices. You might see cloud ear, wood ear fungus, black fungus or a dozen other names, but it will appear as 木耳 (“tree ear”) on the menu. Garlicky, a little vinegary, and spicy from the red peppers, the cilantro was a necessary diversion. Did I mention garlic? Like all of the appetizers we enjoyed that afternoon, this was a bit salty, but in a good way.

Dried Sautéed String Beans. A prime example of wok hei (you might see wok hay, wok chi, or wok qi): “the breath of the wok”; its flavor and aroma are unforgettable – and nearly impossible to achieve in the home kitchen. Attainable by stir frying over incendiary heat, it’s a hallmark of Chinese cuisine; the char you see on the fresh green beans is its badge of honor. Tiny bits of Yibin yacai, the stems of pickled mustard greens, de rigueur in Sichuan cooking, provide contrast and are customary in this dish.

Minced Pork with Clear Noodle. I know this one by its more fanciful moniker, Ants Climbing Up a Tree. It consists of bits of ground pork in a bean paste based sauce poured over “cellophane noodles”, translucent noodles usually made from mung bean starch. The bits of pork (the ants) cling to the noodles (the tree limbs) because of the slightly sticky nature of the sauce, hence the name. Second photo illustrates. At various restaurants where I’ve enjoyed this, the sauce has ranged from almost soupy to rather dry which was the case this time; it was also less sweet, saltier, and spicier than what I’m accustomed to, but highly enjoyable.

I once made this for someone as part of a mini-banquet and she refused to eat it. I assured her that no ants were harmed in the making of this dish. She said she realized that, of course, but the idea of noodles made from cellophane put her off.

You win some, you lose some.

This is Sliced Pork with Wood Ear. You already know about the captivating flavor and aroma of wok hei, “the breath of the wok”, derived from stir frying food over intense heat; the pork in this dish is infused with that magic and at the same time is moist and tender, most likely the result of velveting, a marinating technique used in Chinese cuisine. A great choice.

Sauteed Snow Pea Leaves, for those at the table who crave their veggies; these are simply prepared and excellent.
 
 
Revisiting Little Pepper is like getting together with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while; not necessarily any surprises to shout about, just that warm feeling that everything you loved about them in the past is still going strong and had just been waiting for you to reconnect.

MaLa Project

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as six posts, published on March 25 through 30, 2019.


I may be late to the game in terms of writing about MáLà Project, 122 First Ave in Manhattan, but that doesn’t stop me from working my way through their menu now. Their famous Dry Pot notwithstanding, four of us set out to explore other menu items, so we started with ten (count ’em ten!) dishes from the Appetizers, Snacks, Vegetables and Rice sections of the menu; I’m posting a barrage detailing the whole lot.

Here they are, in no special order. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

MáLà Duck Neck

I’ve been nibbling my way around roast poultry necks since I was a kid. At Thanksgiving, some families argue over politics; we argued over who’s going to get the turkey neck. So I was happy that there were enough MáLà Duck Neck joints for the four of us. I don’t recall these being particularly spicy though, neither má nor là. Good anyway.

Husband and Wife Lung Slices

Fuqi Feipian 夫妻肺片 is a Sichuan málà classic. Choice of specific ingredients varies among chefs (not to worry, it never includes actual slices of lung) but tripe and tendon are traditional and ox tongue and beef shin can appear as alternate paramours – always two items though and always delightfully spicy.

MáLà Pickles

MáLà Pickles, 四川泡菜, from the Snacks section. Just what it sounds like: Sichuan homestyle spicy pickled vegetables of sufficient variety that we worked our way to the bottom of the crock with ease.

Fried Pepper with Thousand Year Egg

Shāo jiāo pídàn, 烧椒皮蛋. These eggs are of a certain age, but not in sync with their moniker; thousand year eggs, also known as hundred year eggs, century eggs and preserved eggs undergo a process that actually takes closer to weeks or months. They’re covered in a mixture of lime (the calcium compound, not the citrus fruit) and salt and packed into clay or ash to cure (a bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea). As you can see, the yolk becomes greenish grey and the white a gelatinous translucent brown. The funky flavor pairs perfectly with the fried spicy green pepper.

Xiangxi Fried Rice

Xiangxi Fried Rice, 湘西炒饭, with egg, Chinese bacon, pickled vegetables and chilies. The waiter informed us that it would be spicier than its menu mate “Leftover Fried Rice”; I believe him having not tried the alternative, but this portion, although certainly delicious, wasn’t especially fiery. Good comfort food though.

Liangfen of Happy Tears

Liangfen of Happy Tears, Shāngxīn Liángfěn, 伤心凉粉. I’m not sure when shāngxīn (伤心) which I thought meant sad or heartbroken became “happy tears” but I suspect it has to do with the zesty deliciousness that this dish delivers. Liángfěn refers to mung bean jelly “noodles” – long, thick-cut, slippery, wobbly chopstick challengers (for some) in a spicy soy sauce based dressing. Good eats.

Candy Garlic

A powerful snack: Candy Garlic, 糖蒜.

😠 It’s Candy! 😣 It’s Garlic! ✋ Stop! You’re both right! 💑

Think pickled, not candied – neither dessert topping nor floor wax. Of course, if it’s date night you might want a breath mint after consuming a couple of them, but these piquant cloves are approachable…with Certitude 🙃.

#RUOldEnough2GetTheJokes

Eggplant with Roasted Garlic

Eggplant with Roasted Garlic, 蒜蓉茄子, is a surefire winner. Eggplant and garlic seem to have an affinity for each other like chocolate and nuts, or bacon and pretty much anything. Again, MáLà Project did a good job with this one.

Mouthwatering Chicken

Mouthwatering Chicken, 口水鸡, another classic Sichuan delicacy. Often made with white meat chicken (one of the few recipes in which it’s a worthwhile choice IMHO), it’s poached chicken in chili sauce and this version was excellent.

Sticky Rice Stuffed Lotus Root

Sticky Rice Stuffed Lotus Root, 桂花糯米莲藕 was delicious. The Chinese characters read osmanthus, glutinous rice, lotus root. As I understand it, the cavities in the lotus root are stuffed with sticky rice and the root is simmered in a sweet syrup, often with the addition of goji berries and red dates, until tender. It’s sliced and then gets a bath in its cooking sauce for serving. Osmanthus flowers adorn the top. It’s a sweet dish, but not intensely so. Excellent.

Okay. Next time, we’ll save room for the Dry Pot!

MáLà Project is located at 122 First Ave in Manhattan.

 
 

Manting Restaurant

Instagram Post 1/21/2019

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Mala Tang and Mala Xiang Guo are Sichuan dishes that are underrepresented in Manhattan’s Theater District, but those are the specialties at Manting Restaurant, 150 W49th St. We were invited to taste their renditions amid a selection of other items on the menu, and we happily obliged.

[1] They feature eight kinds of Mala Tang, the spicy, soupy hot pot, in ready-made versions such as beef, lamb, fish (pictured), seafood and vegetable. When I see “málà”, I expect numbing, spicy Sichuan peppercorns but the best I could tell was that this was ignited only by dried red chili peppers. Not complaining though: we requested very spicy and we actually got it. Spoon some of the sauce over rice for maximum enjoyment.

[2] Mala Xiang Guo, spicy dry pot, is a stir fry in which diners can choose from among 35 items that include meats (beef, lamb, chicken, tripe, kidney, for example), seafood (shrimp, fish fillet, squid), and a garden of vegetables (like mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower, seaweed) and tofu. Choose your favorites, specify a spice level, and you’re set. Read the menu carefully regarding portion size and pricing: it’s priced per pound with a 1.5 pound minimum and a surcharge for orders under 2 pounds, but you’ll probably exceed those anyway if there are at least two of you. Common sense dictates that if you request many ingredients but the size of your order is modest, you may find only one piece of something you desired in the bowl. We decided to get two of these, one with meats and [3] the other fish based. Both filled the bill.

[4] We opted for the Scallion Egg Pancake appetizer, sort of an omletized scallion bing.

谢谢, Manting!
 
 

Daxi Sichuan – Part 5

Instagram Post 11/8/2018

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As I’ve said, Nouveau Sichuan, if you’ll permit my neologism, seems to be the craze among Chinese restaurants these days. Classic Sichuan dishes appear beef cheek by pork jowl with fanciful presentations of innovative altered-state creations on menus that would make a coffee-table book pale into insignificance. Here’s the last in a series from Daxi Sichuan, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave on the second floor of Flushing’s New World Mall, a prime exponent of the trend.

[1] Tibet Style Lamb with Brown Sugar Rice Cake. First question: I count eight chops in compass point configuration but only two rice cakes. Those rice cakes were tasty – but were they intended as merely a flavorsome garnish? (Upon review, the menu depicted more.) The lamb was good as well, but the undergirding of spicy potatoes, peppers and onions was excellent.

[2] And finally, Stir Fried Cabbage and Bean Vermicelli. Gimmick-free, sans over-the-top-staging; simple, homespun and delicious. And maybe that’s the method in their madness at Daxi Sichuan; they aim to cover both sides of the culinary divide with some dishes that focus on eye-catching presentation and others that sustain us with mouth-watering comfort food. After all, they did just net a 2019 Michelin Bib Gourmand award.
 
 

Daxi Sichuan – Part 4

Instagram Post 11/4/2018

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Another pair of dishes from Daxi Sichuan, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave on the second floor of Flushing’s New World Mall. Daxi wants to be known for its “modern interpretation of classic dishes” and our experience was certainly characterized by their attention to panache.

[1] House Special Rice & Cured Meat Country Style. The outsized, lavish menu enticed us with a larger than life depiction of this charming presentation of rice brimming with cured meat and other tempting tids and bits. Although the cast iron pot arrived as pictured, the rice was less lavishly embellished than we had anticipated. Still, the dish was certainly good if a bit overhyped. If it had arrived on a standard serving plate, I would have been just as happy.

[2] Sautéed Pork Chengdu Style. Chinese bacon with spicy green pepper and garlic; simply produced and tasty. They do well when they’re not trying too hard to impress with stylishness.
 
 

Daxi Sichuan – Part 3

Instagram Post 10/31/2018

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Dinner and a show at Daxi Sichuan, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave on the second floor of Flushing’s New World Mall. Exhorted by our server to hurry up and finish taking our pictures lest the crispy rice get soggy, we dutifully complied. She then proceeded to smash the parabolic rice cake with uninhibited abandon using the back of her ladle as a bludgeon until it was well incorporated into the Seafood Crispy Rice Soup. The crunchy bits were certainly tasty, as was the soup, but we were hard pressed to find any seafood in it. So again, although the dishes were certainly good, they were less captivating than the presentation.

More to come from Daxi Sichuan….
 
 

Daxi Sichuan – Part 2

Instagram Post 10/28/2018

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More from the Nouveau Sichuan kitchen of Daxi, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave on the second floor of Flushing’s New World Mall where creativity reigns supreme.

[1] From the unique and novel side of the kitchen, this is Crispy Mandarin Fish. I’m told that its addictive crunchy pillow is made from deep fried ground dried corn. The sweet fish with cashews (and, um, strawberries?) was delicious, the crumbly cushion a perfect foil for the tender meat. My only wish would be for there to have been a higher fish to crunch ratio.

[2] And from the classic side, Sautéed Kidney with Green Pepper (and red peppers too!) just the way it should be: tender and flavorful with a little kick.

More to come from Daxi Sichuan….
 
 

Daxi Sichuan – Part 1

Instagram Post 10/27/2018

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Nouveau Sichuan, if you’ll permit my neologism, seems to be the craze among Chinese restaurants these days. Classic Sichuan dishes appear beef cheek by pork jowl with fanciful presentations of innovative altered-state creations on menus that would make a coffee-table book pale into insignificance.

Daxi Sichuan, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave on the second floor of Flushing’s New World Mall, is one such exponent of the trend. On a recent visit, we ordered the much touted Tibetan-Style Pork Ribs; they arrived in a bamboo birdcage festooned with plastic flowers. I’m not entirely certain that I get the connection (maybe it’s a pun on rib cage?), but there they were on a plate at the bottom of the cage (where again?), pork squeezed into a sausage casing, sheathing a rib bone, and looking for all the world like a trompe-l’oeil hot dog but tasting like a proper pork rib albeit a little on the dry side.

In contrast, the second photo shows our order of adeptly prepared Stir Fried Eggplant and String Beans; definitely delicious and free from artifice.

I’m assuming the birdcage is unavailable for take-out or delivery.

More to come from Daxi Sichuan….
 
 

Szechuan House – Fried Shredded Beef with Celery and Chilies

Instagram Post 10/19/2018

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We had half an hour to spare and my friend @restaurantfairy exhorted @annegrrrll and me to meet her at Flushing’s Szechuan House, 133-47 Roosevelt Ave, for a bite before lunch (yes, we do that). She communicated her desire for the off-menu classic Sichuan dish, Fried Shredded Beef with Celery and Chilies; it was absolutely outstanding and we devoured our pre-game snack posthaste. I tracked down some recipes for Gàn Biān Niú Ròu Sī (干煸牛肉丝), literally dry fried beef threads, and I’m looking forward to doing a little home cookin’ when I get the chance, but in the meantime, I know where to get more!
 
 

Chuan Tian Xia – Chengdu Dragon Handwriting

Instagram Post 9/26/2018

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These light dumplings came from recently opened Chuan Tian Xia at 5502 7th Ave in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. The combination of a little knowledge and more research leads me to think that menu item “Chengdu Dragon Reading Hands” (成都龙抄手) might be better translated as “Chengdu Dragon Handwriting” but that’s still not much help in determining their contents or the derivation of their fanciful name. Can anyone enlighten me?