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Spice Pepper Garden Packs the Heat

By Ann Needle

Dry-fried chicken in take-out format, which travels surprisingly well.
Ann Needle

My friend Carol’s mother is a woman of serious Chinese descent. Carol could boast that she knows a Polynesian pretender of Chinese cuisine by scent. She also would tell you that her own family has a lifeline attached to Acton’s Spice Pepper Garden restaurant.

People, Spice Pepper Garden is serious business. Please do not enter this Sichuan delight with a hankering for soy sauce or a deep-fried egg roll. This does not mean that some of America’s traditional Chinese favorites aren’t on the menu (and done exquisitely), but you would be missing a real adventure. This gem is a living temple to the old saying that China is the place for food, Sichuan [province] the place for flavor.

First, prepare yourselves. If spicy food gives you a bit of a burn by 3 a.m. – and you plan on ordering what I tell you — make a preemptive strike and take your Prilosec BEFORE you go. Sure, the kids will find plenty of familiar dishes that won’t bring them down in flames. Let them suck down the crispy chicken fingers and the plump ‘n’ juicy Peking ravioli; you are called to bigger adventures.

SPG’s signature dishes pack some heat, but not the types of heat the hot-sauce barbeque people brag about, where it’s just too hot to taste anything. Still, if you really can’t deal, just ask them to tone it down a bit when ordering.

Let’s start with the Wonton in Spicy and Sour Soup — please. This is packed with delights Chinese food followers are familiar with, such as wontons, baby bok choy, and cilantro, finished with a dash of heat. But the almost-pickled taste makes it almost thought-provoking. Husband Jeff, who can tell if I left half a garlic clove out of a recipe, cannot identify it. In my kitchen, this would be scary. Here, he simply is determined to keep eating it until he can’t. And don’t forget to wash every few spoonfuls down with a swig of ice water, something that will leave a refreshing after-taste.

“The Best Thing I’ve Ever Eaten”
Now, get ready for Dry-fried Chicken in Hot Dry Red Pepper, what my son called, “The best thing I’ve ever eaten” (ripping that title away from my Mom’s macaroni and cheese). Basically, these are deep-fried chicken slivers. I did not say anything about diet food.

In more detail, the breading carries over some of the wonton soup’s pickled flavor, plus a good dose of heat and even more complex spices. Maybe I haven’t gotten out much, but I’ve never tasted Chinese quite like this. If you are not a fan of the fowl, there also are dry-fried beef slivers and green beans. Having had the beef, it is equally good, given it is all in the breading. Dry-fried toothpicks would be fine with me.

One warning worth repeating: Do NOT toss soy or duck (or any other sauce) on these slivers of goodness. Yes, they are “dried,” but sauces would just make a train wreck out of the flavors.

A surprise hit in my house was the Ma Po Tofu with Ground Pork. One of SPG’s original dishes, this is lower than the dry-fried offerings on the heat scale, but still rich in that pickled spicing. I erred in thinking tofu was going to throw the crew off-balance, but they ate it up.

There are original, delicious dishes with a cooler touch. The Scallion Beef Slivers are a family favorite, and is a safe choice for the truly heat-averse. The same goes for the Tea-Smoked Duck, which Jeff declared as, “Done the way it’s supposed to be.”  And, there’s lots of Kung Pao Chicken out there, but trust that this is among the best you will enjoy.

There are a number of other dishes I’ve sampled here, but darned if I remember them all. What’s interesting is there is nothing they have not done well. What I cannot vouch for is their extensive sushi menu, which I can only imagine is equally perfect.

While everything has been a joy at SPG, there are some lines even I don’t cross. “Double Cooked Bacon” probably isn’t what it sounds, but there’s just something there that screams “muffin top.” There’s also the Crispy Whole Fish with Pine Nuts; I hate when food has eyes. But, if you are the hearty soul willing to venture in that direction, I suspect you will be well rewarded.

Spice Pepper Garden At-A-Glance
Location: 36 Great Rd., Acton –  Route 2A, across from the Trader Joe’s plaza
Contact: 978/369-8808 –  spicepeppergarden.com
Don’t-miss dishes: Wonton in Spicy and Sour Soup ($4.75), Dry-fried anything ($8.95 – $13.95)
Kids’ menu: No, but a solid selection of Chinese appetizers kids love, including a tasty Pork Fried Rice ($7.50)
Is it Chinatown?: Hey, what is?

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