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Sichuan Gourmet, Framingham, 8/19/2007

My wife and I decided to celebrate the end of Restaurant Week (and the end of a horrific run of work and house renovation) with a long overdue visit to Sichuan Gourmet, which a number of people on this board have trumped as the bee's knees when it comes to Sichuan cookery.

We arrived at about 6 pm on a Sunday night, sandwiched between two Chinese families. So far, so good. The seating was rapid, and my Caucasian wife was charmingly handed a fork, while I (Chinese-American) was left with chopsticks, another promising sign of an old-school, real-deal Chinese restaurant. Sadly, it was more or less downhill from there.

I mentioned to the waitress that my wife and I had spent a year living in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province and probably one of the seats of some of the most insanely blow-your-brains-out spicy food on the planet. I mentioned that we had loved the blend of spicy and numbing that is characteristic of Sichuan cookery, and that we could put up with the worst that most Chinese restaurants could offer in terms of heat. We settled down, then, to a mix of some favorite Sichuan chestnuts and some items I hadn't seen before, but noticed on their menu.

We began with the chili oil dumplings (hong-you chao-shou). The dumplings themselves were quite good, a nice delicate wonton type skin wrapped around a juicy, tasty pork filling. The sauce was decent - had a modest kick in the hot department, a nice hit of raw garlic and some sugar to provide contrast. Comparable in my mind to the chao-shou that I've had at Chilli Garden, but the best that I've had in the States (Sichuan Garden in Brookline, Qun Li's Rice Garden and New Taste of Asia in Brookline - RIP, Clinton's Taste of China in CT), there was an extra level of depth and complexity to the sauce that I didn't get in this stuff.

For the mains, we had a Shanghai bok choy (suan4-chao Shanghai-cai), with the bok choy cut up into slivers and stir fried in garlic and oil. Not bad, a good basic restaurant staple. The guo-ba (hai-xian guo-ba) offered solid rice krispy-type rice and a decent mix of seafood in a white sauce. The Sichuan heavyweight dishes came up short, though: the ma-po dou-fu tasted merely spicy (though even that not much -- "Where's the heat?" asked my wife tauntingly), with a slight hint of black bean sauce, very little of the pork that I was specifically asked if I wanted added to the dish, and a barely visible dusting of Sichuan peppercorn that didn't register at all in terms of numbness. The three-pepper chicken (san-jiao gan-bian-ji) was the best dish of a disappointing evening, slivers of chicken and bell peppers mixed up with some chili peppers and again hypothetically, Sichuan peppercorns. The first three elements were decent enough, though it also wasn't lethally hot, and the Sichuan peppercorns were nonexistent. The specials menu featured a Chengdu ma-la-yang (numbing and spicy lamb) which was above-average cuts of lamb meat smothered in chili sauce, and again with very little to speak of in terms of Sichuan peppercorns. My wife, who doesn't normally go in for the blow-your-head-off spice, ate all of the dishes with no difficulty whatsoever, and was no more impressed by the subtlety or depth of flavor than I was.

I thought we might rescue the evening with an unusual offering on the dessert menu - tang-yuan, or glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet black sesame paste. In China, tang-yuan are usually boiled up in a little rice wine (mi-jiu) and wolf berries (gou-ji) and are a traditional favorite at the Lantern Festival (first full moon after New Year, which is when the real party starts). In the US, most restaurants don't make the stuff, and most of us Chinese satisfy our need for a fix by buying frozen packages of ready-made tang-yuan from a Chinese supermarket, then heating them up in boiling water at home. This stuff that we were served up tasted more like the latter -- the balls were served up in the (flavorless) water that they were boiled in (God help you if you breached the ball and it leaked into the water - wouldn't taste anything at that point). The balls were a shade better than the ones I usually get from the Super 88, but hardly what I would expect from a great Chinese restaurant.

I'm not sure what went wrong -- maybe I ordered the wrong dishes. Perhaps the waitress got stuck on the notion that we lived in Hunan, and the chef served up la (spicy, though it wasn't even very la) without the ma (numbing). But I wasn't impressed by the flavor. I wasn't blown away by knifework that was noticeably different from Sichuan Garden or Qingdao Garden or any of a host of other decent Chinese restaurants in the greater Boston area. I was impressed that the food struck me as similar to what I had at the now fired-out Szechwan Bay in Somerville (decent, but would have to beg and plead in front of the chef to get something almost in the ballpark of Sichuan Garden). The fact that the Szechwan Bay chef was a Sichuan Gourmet veteran makes this comparison plausible.

I'm willing to try to be convinced that I somehow got snookered -- I would be curious to hear what dishes I was a rank fool not to try when I was there (and it'll have to be something other than fatty pork, which I ate more than enough of in a year in China). But it's going to take an awful lot of convincing to get me to regularly drive an hour out of my way to Framingham or Billerica to eat at either of these places. Or to keep me from continuing to steer Sichuan-peppercorn-addicted 'hounders in the direction of Brookline Village and Clinton CT.

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  1. I've been to that location once, and it was one of the spiciest meals I've ever experienced (and I love some serious face-hurting spice). We even took pictures of the sweat rolling down my forehead. I picked my order online using their website (http://www.laosichuan.com/ch/menu.php), and then copied the names of all the dishes in my order (in both English and Chinese, as well as their number) and just handed the printout to the waitress. Requests for beer and water were all in English, and most of us were white. I don't think there's a direct correlation between the diner and the spice level. It could just be the dishes we ordered, or maybe you hit an off night in the seasoning department.

    The hottest (la) dishes I got were the JinGu Fish Fillets (dry-fried) and the fu xi fei pian (which may have been nearly 100% brisket). The cold spicy bamboo shoots were very strongly numbing as well as the sausage and the dry-fried green beans. The twice-cooked pork was much less spicy, and somewhat chewy, but nonetheless enjoyable.

    It was the most extremely spicy dining experience I'd had in a while, another notable one being the squid salad at Dok Bua.

    Closer to Boston is Chili Garden, if you don't want to drive to Framingham.

    1. FWIW, the Billerica one is less afraid of burning the tongues off their customers :-)
      The Framingham one isn't bad as long as you stick w/ the 2 pepper dishes and pick out the occasional 3 pepper.
      Did you say anything that would label you as "wimp"? ;-)

      3 Replies
      1. re: Spike

        Saying you've lived in Hunan Province for a year and lived to tell the tale is typically a pretty good indication that you're not a wimp.

        Chilli Garden in Medford has struck me as being even less interesting in terms of depth and complexity of flavor than Sichuan Gourmet.

        I am also fully aware that restaurants are capable of having off nights, but my other friend also had a disappointing experience in Framingham (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/398235 if you want to see the details). As I say, it'll take a lot of convincing to get me to schlep that far out of my way for food that IMO was not as spicy, as delicate or as intricate as Sichuan Garden in Brookline Village. Alanr and I have burned our tongues out more than once there (much more so than at Sichuan Gourmet), we have also had bad meals there, but the worst meal I've had at Sichuan Garden was still far tastier than this thing last night at Sichuan Gourmet.

        1. re: Dr.Jimbob

          Now I feel inspired to go back to Sichuan Garden. My experiences there were of sort of moderately spicy food that was good, but not as carefully prepared as at Gourmet. The dish I really loved at Garden, though, was the whole long peppers, just dry-fried up whole with a little something salty on the outside.

          1. re: Dr.Jimbob

            To be fair, I haven't been to the Sichuan Gourmet in Framingham for nearly a year, but did hit the Billerica branch two weeks ago. Maybe they had complains from folks who lived in the area who complained about the hotness?

        2. It's weird that you can't get really spicy food at Szechuan Bay. The three times i've went it was seriously spicy, like blow my socks of intense. The spiciest dish was some sort of sour tofu dish on the chinese only menu that was packed with chili oil and szhc pepper. Al l I've had to do there is say that I like it spicy. The meals i've had at Sichuan Garden, Chilli Garden, and Sichuan Gourmet have not been in the same league in terms of spiciness.

          9 Replies
          1. re: WeirdSam

            The most insanely hot Sichuan dish that I've had in the Boston area remains the Chongqing Hot/Dry Chicken (Chongqing la-zi ji) at Sichuan Garden in Brookline. The mix of Sichuan peppercorns and chili powder is genuinely painful to eat ... and I for one can't stop. My friends and I start spooning it into our rice, burning our tongues off, and coming back for more. But there is more to Sichuan cookery than the indiscriminate tossing in of chili sauce, and while I will concede that I have been to Sichuan Garden more often than I have been to Chilli Garden or Sichuan Gourmet, and while I will also concede that SG has good nights and bad nights, I will say that on a good night, SG so far outstrips any of the others in terms of levels and complexity of flavor, even within something hot and spicy. The only rival in the area was New Taste of Asia, may it rest in peace. Szechwan Bay I've been to once or twice and had some interesting stuff, but nothing either as numbing or as pleasing as in Brookline.

            1. re: Dr.Jimbob

              I eat the hot peppers so almost any dish with them is very spicy. My favorite was Qun Li's version of chicken with chilis because the sauce was delicious and it was absolutely covered in hot chilis.

              My experience is that Sichuan Gourmet spices to a medium degree of heat, but then I eat the hot peppers so what do I know?

              1. re: lergnom

                You eat those dry ones? I never understood the textural appeal of eating those.

                1. re: Luther

                  The texture can be leathery, but I like that. I do hunt out the soft ones first and I prefer the ones where the seeds aren't prominent. Warning: completely destroys digestive tract, depending on dose, for part of the next day. But they are addictive when covered in oil and sauce. I have a big bag at home and will make tofu with hot peppers for myself when no one is around to complain.

            2. re: WeirdSam

              Chinese only menu? Haven't been since the spring (and it's closed for now) but don't recall such a thing. Details, please.

              1. re: Aromatherapy

                There was a specials menu and about half of it was translated into english, the other half wasn't. I asked the waitress what the dishes that weren't translated were and she told me in the best english she could.

                why has it closed?

                1. re: WeirdSam

                  Thanks. There was a fire a few weeks ago.

                  1. re: Aromatherapy

                    Late Friday afternoon of last week, my girlfriend and I had a good experience here. Service was excellent, with the wait staff lined up on the other side of the room, waiting for an excuse to come over and help. The food was fresh and spicy. We shared a fried tofu & veggie dish and a fried rice and veggie dish. We'll definitely be back.

                    1. re: Joshua B

                      Last night, my girlfriend and I enjoyed another meal at the Gourmet. It was about 7:30 pm and they had a good crowd. I'd estimate 70% were Asian. I had a smoky shredded chicken with thin-sliced green peppers in chili sauce dish which was rated double hot. I ordered brown rice with it. It was a good hot. I had to blow my nose three times during the meal. She had a shredded beef with fried rice dish. We shared, and both were delicious, with good cuts of meat.

                      They should offer more desert options. The waitress said they only had cake.

            3. I am SO INTERESTED in this place! Thanks, Jimbob, for the clarity in recounting your experience there. I taught in Sichuan province (a little town called Mian Zhu) and ate Sichuan heat and Sichuan peppercorns for every meal -- no Western food anywhere. I'm not a spice wimp, but by the time I left, I was *craving* bland food. HA! I haven't ever tasted anything close to the food in Mian Zhu or Chengdu since I've been back in the States.

              I'm excited for the dumplings, actually, in a spicy broth, which I lapped up for breakfast every day. I feel that I want to review my (rudimentary) Mandarin before going there. I'm trying to decide between this and another spot for dinner this weekend... we'll see! Oh, those peppercorns... once out for a fancy hotpot dinner, I had to drink a cruet of rice vinegar after crunching into a few of those peppercorns! (good trick, in case anyone else makes that mistake... stops the choking)