THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dining Out

Chinese delicacies a taste of tradition

Email|Print| Text size + By Cathie Desjardins
March 5, 2006

Chilli Garden has plenty to satisfy everyone's taste for Chinese fare. If, like our son, your culinary range in Chinese food extends only as far as scallion pancakes, you will find them here, crispy and golden ($4.95), as well as a tasty version of a pu pu platter ($7.95 for one person, $14.95 for two) and other conventional Chinese-American dishes.

But Chilli Garden is also a rare authentic outpost for Sichuan delicacies in addition to better-known Mandarin dishes. Most Americans think of Chinese food as lo mein, fried rice, and moo shu pancakes, or the hotter General Tso's chicken or Hunan beef. But in China, the spicy, flavorful Sichuan cooking is probably the most popular of the eight regional styles.

At Chilli Garden, owner Zheng Hu imports hot bean sauce, chilis, pickles, wild mushrooms, peppercorns, and other spices directly from Sichuan province. Chef Hui Zeng smokes his own bacon and grinds chilis by hand.

On the menu, many offerings sport a tiny sputtering cherry bomb next to them, fair warning for the meek of palate. We ordered appetizers from the Sichuan menu, a delicious cold noodle, minced pork, and peanut dish ($4.95) that exemplified the Sichuan tradition of tangy dishes with complex flavors and contrasting textures. A salad of rice noodles and shredded daikon and carrot ($5.95) was refreshingly crunchy and enlivened by spices and chili oil, curiously addictive.

Sichuan cuisine features an abundance of beef dishes, a natural evolution from a region where oxen were widely used for centuries. At Chilli Garden, you can order beef with baby ginger ($9.95), shredded with green pepper or garlic sauce ($9.95 each), or prepared in half a dozen other interesting ways.

Whole fish braised in sauce is also traditional, and Chilli Garden offers whole tilapia in a rich, dark, fermented black bean sauce or with scallions and ginger, or with minced pickled pepper (each $17.50). Wild mushrooms are also common, as in a dish of wild boletus edulis mushrooms with peppers ($12.95) with a truffle-like, foresty flavor.

It's impossible to sample the many intriguing possibilities in a single visit or two: The Chilli Garden website says there are more than 5,000 Sichuan dishes in existence, and rabbit, pork tripe, bitter melon, duck feet, wild fern, and green bean starch are some of the exotic options on the menu. And while dishes are more hot than not, a main dish of tofu and baby shrimp was surprisingly sweet and mild, with delicate silken tofu jostling tiny firm shrimp. Chicken with three peppers ($8.95) was also a hit, subtly overlayering tender chicken with complex, interwoven flavors and a light blast of heat.

Chilli Garden has had a face lift since it opened a couple of years ago: Once stark white walls have been painted peach and hung with small, diamond-shaped, hand-painted canvases. But despite the sleek black tables and chairs, Chilli Garden has more the ambience of a store-front luncheonette than a serious restaurant. Service was prompt and pleasant: The wait staff seemed to enjoy being there as much as many of the smiling patrons.

Chilli Garden has steadily been building a faithful clientele among Asians and non-Asians alike, both those looking for reliable versions of standard Chinese Mandarin fare and more knowledgeable or adventurous diners who appreciate the flavorful and authentic dishes when they find them.

CHILLI GARDEN

Cuisine: Chinese

Address: 41 Riverside Avenue, Medford

Phone: 781-781-0817

Hours: Mon. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Fri. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sun. noon - 9:30 p.m.
Reservations accepted.

Prices: Appetizers, soups (for 2): $3.50 - $9.85
Main dishes: $7.50 - $15.95
Desserts: $4.95 - $6.95

more stories like this