Little Pepper: The Ears Have It
What's the best Sichuan restaurant in New York? Wu Liang Ye? Szechuan Gourmet? Spicy & Tasty? Little Pepper? In a restaurant mecca like New York, where there's so much quality and diversity, we don't have to choose (my own coronation of Wu Liang Ye notwithstanding). Every good restaurant has its particular strengths and specialties, so it's really more fruitful to determine which among the top tier has one's favorite version of a particular dish, or a most satisfying array of winners. All the restaurants mentioned above are in the top tier. I recently paid my first visit to Little Pepper, in Flushing (133-43 Roosevelt Avenue), and I can proclaim that they make my favorite version of pig's ear.
Actually, I can't remember the last time I had pig's ear in a Chinese restaurant (I may have had it in a Brazilian feijoada more recently). It doesn't appear on the regular menus of Wu Liang Ye or Szechuan Gourmet. This cold dish of spiced, sliced ear was a favorite of mine during New York's first Szechuan wave of the 'seventies and 'eighties. I believe Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn had it listed at "pig's head," and Ting Fu Garden baked it into wonderful sesame flat breads. At Little Pepper it has a complex peppery spice that marries wonderfully with the slightly bacony flavor and the textural sensuality of crunchy cartilage strips surrounded by gelatinous meat. For me it was the highlight of a generally excellent meal.
Cold dishes of cucumber and kelp, both with smashed garlic, were tasty and refreshing, especially the cucumbers. A cold tea-smoked duck appetizer was less satisfying than freshly roasted hot versions of the dish I've had. Little Pepper's variant on dan dan noodles with beef (for some reason the pork version was unavailable) was pretty good, but I'll need to try the standard minced pork version of the dish to make a comparison with other restaurants. So far Wu Liang Ye is the champ in the dan dan division. Little Pepper's execution of ma po tofu (it's called something different on the menu) ranks with the best, and is properly oily. This classic Sichuan dish, when prepared authentically, wades in a pool of bright red oil. That's the way it is, and if you don't like it you can go to your local fake Szechuan restaurant and get a mediocre "bean curd Szechuan-style" with a thick, gloppy brown sauce. Several in my party did notice, however, that in general the dishes were lighter and less oily than at other authentic Sichuan restaurants. My biggest disappointment was the dish I had the highest expectations for, the spicy lamb with cumin. Holly Anderson had bent my ear with an orgasmic kvell about this dish, but to my taste it was too spicy and too heavy on the cumin, robbing it of all subtlety. I much prefer the crispy lamb (also with cumin) at Szechuan Gourmet (a signature dish there). We finished with a soup of pork meatballs and pea shoots that was pleasant enough, but not especially memorable.
One thing the Queens Sichuan restaurants have over the Manhattan ones is value. Not that Wu Liang Ye and Szechuan Gourmet are expensive, but at Little Pepper a large meal for five was $79 before tip. If you've never tried pig's ear before, carpe diem and hightail it over to Little Pepper.