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Red Hot Chilli Pepper, Desi Chinese, San Carlos

Went to a new place last night ---

What I still love about the peninsula is I can find an entire genre of food - and certainly a few dishes - anytime I'm feeling bored. We were bored last night (after a delightfully comforting meal the night before at Pasta Moon in HMB, GET. THE. SPECIALS.)

I suggested Red Hot Chilli Pepper, since I had seen the Eater (?) note that they had a dish so hot they make you sign a waver and give you free beer for a week if you finish it. RHCP is on San Carlos right by the train station, right next to another indian place that smelled good and was crowded, and a sports bar that had a good looking tap line and probably decent burgers (Sneakers).

RHCP specializes in Desi Chinese, or Indian Chinese. Even better, there are dishes like Hakka Lamb which are indian takes on regional chinese dishes. The Y*lp reviews were scattered all over the map, from "inedibly hot" to "I couldn't taste the spice", but people focuses on the Chilli (sic) Chicken, the Chicken Momo, and the Gobi Manchurian. The Ghost Chicken (the super hot one with the free beer) wasn't mentioned.

The place is just slightly upscale. It's been refreshed and made modern by decent lighting, some statues, and bright paint. The chairs are rather uncomfortable (at least at the bar) and left over from some previous incarnation. The place is kind of large, with lots of room between the tables, and many groups. The indian families were minimum 4, some 12, and a few kids running around (like an actual indian or chinese place). It's a great mix of foodie enough for adults but you could bring a 6 year old (or two) and no one would care.

There was a line coming in, and the place was kind of full, but it just seemed to take some time to gather together tables for groups. We scuttled over to the bar (later joined by the only other white couple). I wouldn't order a cocktail there, and the wine list was somewhat sad but plausible, the beers on tap were OK but not well selected. I had a tsing tao.

It's a little hard to critique something like Desi Chinese, because it's supposed to be a little gloopy and slapdash. I did eat chinese in Chennai in '96, when the only restaurants were Pizza and Chinese, and that one meal was pretty bad, but very popular. I've had a few other versions of Gobi Manchurian, it's on a dozen restaurants in the south bay, and I've talked to the owner of Passage 2 India, who keeps an entire Desi section on her dinner buffet.

My best guess about Desi is it should have brighter, richer, and more complex spices (more "masala") than standard chinese. More star anise, more cardamom, less ma la, and plenty of homey gloop. The dishes here fit the bill, although I don't think would be the best in class in the bay area. RHCP is clearly popular among the local indian population, which is also what the P2I lady told me.

Nostalgia, one guesses.

The Momos had a pre-made skin - big minus! - but the internals were great, an explosion of ginger and strange spices. The dipping sauce was even better, a real peculiar combination of indian and chinese, with funny threads running through it that were probably mango. The chili chicken wasn't that hot (could have stood a step higher) but I think we were getting "kitchen default", as our waiter was from the bar and unlikely noted down anything special about us - just about everyone had chilli chicken on the table. The best of that I've had is Tumeric in Sunnyvale, and this was gloopier with a bit less spice presence. The Hakka Lamb was almost mild, but had a fun taste profile - lots of anise.

With a couple of beers and leaving quite full, we were out the door for $70 for 2 people and our food could have fed 3 or maybe 4. I would call the place a bargain at $40, reasonable at $50~60, and $70 was a little high but not insulting. We kept picking at the food even after we were "finished".

Is it the best Desi Chinese around? Probably not. They could use some experimentation on spice levels, and getting more Taste in the dish (taste level was going up in the sauce as we were eating). Were they good, fun, pleasant? Absolutely!

I'd recommend a stop here. San Carlos is overrun by italian places all serving the same thing (Limone, Positano), Cal-whatever (Town), and it has Refuge and Office, and I like Mythos for cal-med, but the only interesting chinese place is Panda Dumpling (tell me otherwise), and there's Thai at Thai Time (with Real German Beer), and there's Speederia for Real NYC Slices, Lulus and a couple of authentic taquerias, then were are you? All the Japanese is in San Mateo, RWC has some hits, but It's nice to have someplace fun, accessible, and truly interesting.

(PS. Bair Island, which I really liked the looks of, seems closed now. Never made it there.)

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  1. Your review, while welcome, says a lot about the area: "I recommend a visit, just don't have high expectations." As the southern San Mateo County Chinese takeout maven, where do you come out on Fey versus Crouching Tiger? Worth the extra drive to Menlo Park from San Carlos?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Lisa S.

      It's such a different style of food that it's hard to compare. It's all about being gloopy and homey. You really need to be in a certain mood to enjoy Red Hot Chilli Pepper, and if you are, it's the best place.

      I'm often in the mood for Fey and Crouching Tiger, the high quality ingredients, great spice mixtures. I'll take either one hands down.

    2. As a Chinese-American, Red Hot Chili Pepper was a miss for me, not quite Chinese and not standard Indian cuisine (which I wanted). Also I prefer no more than medium spice level. The staff was very good though. The place was jam-packed with Indian people so I think this is a cuisine that speaks of 'home' to them.

      1 Reply
      1. re: LuckyMei

        Yeah, there's no standard Indian. There's no standard chinese. It's very purely desi chinese, and full of nostalgia.

      2. I tried this place for the first time a few weeks ago. All my Indian coworkers love this place, so when one of them had his last day, he chose this restaurant for his farewell lunch.

        I ordered the gobi manchurian, and I loved it... I am not an expert on this dish, but I do order it regularly in Indian restaurants, and this was the best version I've had yet. Crispy and very flavorful.... I do wish it was a little more spicy (I love spice).

        I also got try some of the other dishes that my coworkers ordered. All were good, but the only other one that stood out was the vegetable coins/cakes in manchurian sauce. Nothing I ever would have thought to order from the description, but wow was it flavorful.

        Is it the best Desi Chinese around? According to my coworkers yes. If anyone knows of some place better, I'd love to try it. The only other Desi Chinese I've been to is Temptations in Mountain View... and it was quite awful (goopy cloyingly sweet sauces).

        1. From experience, I can tell you the Ghost Chicken (which they call the Devil's Chicken) is really painful. That's coming from someone who still craves the burn of the "Prince of Wales" habanero burgers. My son and I didn't bother to finish it, but did take the leftovers home. Since I went there specifically for that dish, I couldn't tell you a thing about the rest of the menu, but I'd certainly consider giving other dishes a try just for what they are.

          1. Mrs. Wineguy and I dropped in to RHCP for lunch yesterday. Neither of us had had anything like it before, so nothing to compare it to. We liked it, and would return. However, I thought some of the dishes were overpriced like the Hakka Lamb at $17.
            Are there any restaurants in San Francisco serving this type of cuisine?

            4 Replies
            1. re: wineguy7

              I can't think of any places in San Francisco proper specializing in Desi Chinese. But some dishes like chili chicken have become so popular that they've found a place on the menus of some Indian restaurants.

              1. re: wineguy7

                A post in another thread reminded me that Spicy Bite has a few Desi Chinese dishes. Can't offer an opinion on quality though.
                http://spicy-bite.com/menu.html

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Quite a few places in the south bay have a Desi Chinese section of their menu, and at least offer Gobi Manchurian. Yelp mentions Sneha, my current indian crush Mumbai Chowk in Newark, Passage to India in MV, etc etc.

                  Apparently the correct spelling of "chili chicken" has two 'L's, "chilly chicken" and "chilli chicken", as that's how I saw it all over bangalore.

                  I did get to a desi chinese buffet in Bangalore, my co workers suggested it for a company lunch. Tastes were more muted then at RHCP.

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    Yes, but can you suggest one in SF per the question.

                    Chilli with double-L's is British spelling.

              2. go chaatzz (fremont) is desi chinese, has both strong positive and negative reviews (y.)

                my one and only experience wasn't pleasant. found the small portion (paneer chow chow) and flavors a turnoff.