Seven years ago, when Little Pepper opened on Roosevelt Avenue across from the Bland housing projects, it was hard to get diners to go there. Located on the subterranean level of a fading strip mall, it was surrounded by massage parlors, and the stairwell leading to the entrance was often heaped with litter. The place also seemed like a front for a gambling operation, because poker players with cigarettes dangling from their lips would emerge from a hidden rear room during your meal, look furtively around, and dash out. Yet the restaurant delivered the most spice-intensive Sichuan food the city had yet seen.
Now Little Pepper has moved into more comfortable surroundings. Although the gamblers have vanished, it still provides some of the hottest food in town. But the move was a strange one. For the past year, Little Pepper has been situated in College Point, nearly three miles north of its original location, in an isolated neighborhood that protrudes like a goiter into Long Island Sound, offering superb views of Rikers Island. College Point Boulevard—the main drag where the restaurant is located—feels like a laid-back upstate town.
The interior of the restaurant is decorated with photos taken by the owner’s son, along with a hand-painted mural of peonies. Although the earlier premises felt slapdash, the new one has solidity, and Little Pepper is famous enough that it still attracts intrepid destination diners in packs. The menu is expanded, too, though some old favorites like kelp with garlic and the wonderful “dried rabbit (whole)” have turned up missing. The new menu encompasses the occasional Cantonese dish (beef with broccoli, egg drop soup), probably to compete with a couple of nearby Chinese carryouts.
Heat levels are not indicated on the leatherette-bound bill of fare, but look to the paper menu by the front door for chile-pepper sign language indicating degree of spiciness, running from one to three. One of the few selections to garner three chiles is chicken in Sichuan sauce ($11.95). This represents the fabled chong qing chicken, rendered with a seriousness of purpose never seen in Gotham before. The tiny chunks of light and dark meat lurk among bales of toasted red chiles, and for once, the peppers seem to have conferred their hotness on the poultry. Raw sesame seeds scatter on top like snow on a dormant volcano. The burn is prodigious.
Other three-chile triumphs are dishes designated “in spicy soup base.” The so-called soup base, of course, is pure chile oil. As in other relatively authentic Sichuan restaurants in town, there’s so much of it, you wonder what you’re supposed to do with the surfeit, since it would moisten 100 bowls of rice. The most expensive of these dishes involves braised sliced fish ($39.95), and several species seemed to be flopping around in the red tide one evening. Sea bass and tilapia were identified, indicating that both fresh and saltwater species are fair game where this wild farrago of seafood is concerned. My crew of four could barely make a dent in the ridiculous-size portion.
The two-chile dishes don’t lag much in spice level. My favorite here wasn’t offered at the old place: Fried potato in hot sauce ($7.95) proved to be common French fries littered with Sichuan peppercorns, crushed chiles, and cilantro. Totally irresistible, it suggests you carry a jar of peppercorns around with you at all times for sprinkling on French fries. Dishes designated one chile are something of a wild card—they can be incendiary, like lamb with hot-and-spicy sauce with cumin; or mild as a milquetoast in a movie, as in pork meatballs in garlic sauce ($9.95), whose charm lies in its sheer quantity of ground meat, though the sauce is way too sugary.
There are cooling dishes, too. Sautéed pine nuts and corn is a sweet succotash that an Iowa grandmother would find familiar, though the equally soothing lotus root with dried pepper would seem to her like something from the moon. The Sichuan standard of not-hot tea-smoked duck disappoints, simply because it’s not smoky enough. You can get jiggy with organs at Little Pepper, too. The checklist includes beef tendon, tripe, and lungs; pork kidneys, intestines, and blood. The last ingredient, looking like an opaque cherry Jell-O, appears most propitiously in braised ox stomach and pork blood ($14.95). The color of the liquid sloshing around in the tureen is livid scarlet—and if it doesn’t make you think of the final sequence in Carrie, you’re not much of a movie buff.
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