S.W. Pepper House -
The Crystal Mall is as close to a captive market as I have seen in terms of Chinese Malls. Normally, when a city has a large enough local Chinese population to support a Chinese Mall, there is always more than one mall developed/built to compete for the consumer’s dollars. And in a North American city with a substantial Chinese population such a Burnaby, the constant development and redevelopment of Chinese malls and plazas is almost a given.
Burnaby is an aberration in that it has only one major Chinese mall in The Crystal Mall. And as such, it is a place where people of Chinese descent go to buy Chinese tea leaves, purchase Chinese groceries, see a Chinese dentist, talk to a Chinese lawyer, use a Chinese (at least in name) bank, take music lessons with Chinese instruction, get a haircut by a Chinese hairdresser, and generally to do everything related to being a person of Chinese descent living in a North American city.
Yesterday happened to be a day when my mother-in-law, wife, and I had to connect with our Taiwanese ancestry by visiting The Crystal Mall to talk to some Taiwanese friends about a Taiwanese matter, purchase some vitamins from a trustworthy Taiwanese vitamin store, and to buy some Taiwanese fruits from one of the market stalls.
Since we didn’t have a lot of time on our hands, we decided to have our lunch at one of the restaurants in The Crystal Mall. The only two restaurants that I have been to previously at The Crystal Mall was Pittsburg and Ali Shan, and I was neither in the mood for run-of-the-mill HK Cafe food nor crappy, wannabe Taiwanese food. I was in the mood for something new, something I haven’t tried before, and something full of flavours. I suggested to my wife that we eat at S.W.Pepper House because, frankly, I couldn’t think of a type of regional Chinese cuisine more flavourful than the hot and spicy sichuan cuisine that is served at S.W.Pepper House.
Even though my wife loves hot and spicy sichuan food more than life itself, she was initially skeptical that a restaurant named Southwestern Style (in Chinese) and located amidst drab and listless retail stores would serve anything that even resembled authentic Sichuan cuisine. I had to show her some of the user-submitted photos of their food on the urbanspoon mobile app to convince her that S.W.Pepper House did indeed serve “real” Sichuan food.
Time was of the essence so once we were led to our tables and received our menus, we told our server that we were ready to order. With our server’s help, we quickly ordered four of their more popular dishes. Before she walked away from our table to put our orders through to the kitchen, I told our server that we were severely time-constrained and really need our dishes to arrive a.s.a.p.
And they really delivered our dishes ASAP! I think they even skipped over making the food for two or three tables that arrived and ordered before us because we received all four of our dishes before any of the other tables even received their first dish.
The first dish that we received was the deep fried chicken with red chilis.
This version is different in composition from the deep fried chicken with red chilis that I’ve had at other restaurants. Other versions I’ve had usually has an at least 3:1 chili/chicken ratio. The dish we got yesterday at S.W.Pepper House had more chicken than red chilis. The pieces of chicken we got yesterday were also larger than what we usually got. They had a dry-on-the-outside-and-tender-on-the-inside texture that was a nice departure from the usual way-too-dry-inside-and-out texture of deep fried chicken with chilis. Each piece of chicken was full of flavour. Upon entering my mouth, the pieces of chicken engulfed my olfactory glands with the aroma of flower peppers while simultaneously providing a pleasant numbing feeling to my tongue which was immediately followed by a spicy kick. This was a very, very tasty dish of deep fried chicken with red chilis. The only aspect of the dish that could benefit from a tweak was it’s intensity of spiciness. I thought that the dish would work better if they made it 50% (or even 100%) spicier.
The second dish we got were the stir-fried pea pod stems with garlic.
This dish was also well-executed. The stems were juicy, just-right salty, and not limp at all. They had a crisp, fresh, and almost salad-like texture that came from being stir-fried with precision. The mashed garlic distributed throughout the pea pod stem leaves also provided the stems with just the right amount of garlicky aromas to enhance but not overwhelm the natural flavours of the stems. The delicious pea pod stems meant that S.W.Pepper Hou was 2 for 2 with a batting average of a thousand after two dishes. But two for two doesn’t a good meal make since we ordered a total of four dishes.
The third dish we got was the mapo tofu.
We ordered it as a lunch special (which is why it came with rice) at the suggestion of our server. The dish was sublime in it’s simplicity. This dish was basically tofu fried in red chili oil/sauce with a little bit of minced pork, a spoonful of preserved black beans, and a generous dose of powdered flower peppers. The minimal but rich accompaniments worked well to showcase the silky smooth texture of the tofu while providing a reminder that this was a hot and spicy Sichuan dish with it’s more-than-suble-but-less-than-intense flower pepper aromas and level-five (out of a total of ten levels) intensity spiciness. This dish is a classic example of the’ less is more’ approach. Again, the only tweak I would make to this dish is to double it’s intensity of spiciness.
The final dish that we got was the boiled sliced fish.
Like the tofu and the chicken, this dish was spicy but quite spicy enough. Again, this lack of spiciness was only a very minor complaint. What it lacked it spiciness, it more than made up in it’s beautiful balance of red chili pepper and flower pepper flavours. The texture of the fish was also something else. It was tender on the inside and, unexpectedly, tender on the outside. And even though it was tender throughout, it held its shape perfectly from being repeatedly stirred in the bowl as well as being repeatedly picked up and then dropped with a pair of chopsticks. The slices of fish were also pleasantly mild so that they could soak up and release the flavours of the two types of peppers. I did sense an extremely faint fishiness from the slices of fish while eating them. But the fishiness was not putridly briny fishiness; the fishiness I sensed was the aroma common only to farmed, freshwater fishes. The fishiness was a calling card; a certificate of origin.
The layers of napa cabbage and bean sprouts residing below the slices of fish must also be mentioned. Both components were purposely undercooked so that they provided a crispy textural contrast to the tender slices of fish. They also soaked up a lot of the flower pepper infused chili oil in the cooking process. They added an extra punch of numbing spiciness when eaten together with the slices of fish.
The meal we had at S.W. Pepper House was both satisfying and enjoyable. Each of the four dishes we ordered were extremely well executed and tasted so delicious that we finished every single bite of every single dish. The only minor gripe I had was that the spicy dishes were not spicy enough. They had a toned-down spiciness that was different from the normal in-your-face, don’t-eat-here-if-you-can’t-stand-it authentic sichuan restaurants. Maybe it’s location in an all-regions-encompassing Chinese mall had something to do with it’s toned-down spiciness. S.W. Pepper House might be trying to cater to the general Chinese demographic who walks through the doors of the mall instead of a specific Sichuan clientele. After all, there are many regions in China (and regions outside of China with Chinese heritage) where ‘hot and spicy’ is not part of the local culinary vocabulary/repertoire.