A Cold Sweat in Flushing

7 Jun

Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd

A few days before the long overdue gathering of our gallant gang, Eugene, who was to make this much anticipated pick, had to bow out due to more a more pressing professional commitment, as if there actually is such a thing. His last minute announcement, however, was only a minor setback. Our collective hibernation during the recent frigid spell just further fortified our determination to carry on without Eugene, and as we quickly learned, without Rick who also had a business engagement that he unconvincingly explained took precedence over our mission. Displaying leadership skills long dormant, Gerry unhesitatingly assumed Eugene’s pick and steered us, with his usual creative gusto, to a part of Queens we had, inexplicably, neglected in the four years we have been assembling. We were going to Flushing—to the largest Chinatown in New York.

Heading east off the Grand Central, away from Shea Stadium and under the 7 train tracks on Roosevelt Avenue, Gerry and I in Gerry’s jeep, crossed what seemed like in the dark, a bridge over very muddy waters. Once over the bridge, we were in Flushing’s Chinatown, crammed with buses, police cars, slow moving traffic, busy sidewalks, tea houses, banquet halls, bakeries, Asian supermarkets, and noodle houses. Before entering the somewhat controlled chaos of the Flushing streets, we saw the yellow awning with the English-language name of the restaurant that was our destination: Little Pepper, also known in Chinese as Xiao La Jiao Sichuan.

Descending into the basement restaurant, we noticed ornaments of chili peppers and posters of bucolic scenes that could have been New England.—or somewhere in China. The restaurant was mostly empty except for one large round table occupied by a Chinese family who stared at us incredulously upon our entrance.

 We were, apparently, assigned the one waitress who spoke some semblance of English. That, and the specials on the wall written in Chinese characters, increased our anticipation. We like it when communication is difficult—when we need help to decipher a menu. But this menu didn’t seem too problematic; it was written in English and offered an assortment of non-traditional eats such as bull frog, rabbit, duck, and eel along with a variety of offal; stomach, intestines, tongue, pork blood, ox tripe, and pig kidney. The menu also featured numerous little peppers next to items signifying that the dish would be spicy.  Our waitress’s first words to us were; “You like spicy?” We understood; we were in an authentic Szechuan restaurant; there would be no compromise when it came to the heat level of the dishes. We would not have it any other way.

spicy pork dumplings

We began the ordering drill, or more aptly, the pointing drill. We pointed to what was on the menu and our waitress wrote it down starting with pork dumplings in hot sauce, noodles with minced beef in hot sauce, diced rabbit in a red chili sauce, lamb with hot and spicy sauce, that szechuan classic, double cooked pork, and Chinese string beans with intestines in hot sauce which, even after pointing to it, our waitress seemed unconvinced of our intentions. She peered closer over my shoulder and, in her broken English said either “interesting” or  “intestines” in an unbelieving tone. She wanted to make very sure that we were indeed ordering  the intestines, not “interesting” string beans.  My finger hadn’t moved from the spot on the menu and, finally convinced we were serious, she smiled tightly and wrote it down. We concluded the ordering with the only nod to a non-little pepper signified item was sautéed snow pea leaves.

The dumplings arrived first swimming in chili oil along with the noodles covered in minced beef and topped with a generous handful of coriander leaves. Almost instantaneously our tongues began to tingle. But it took the arrival of the diced rabbit in red chili sauce to initiate the raves; the tiny pieces of rabbit, cooked tender and still attached to small bones was served room temperature and coated with a fiery chili sauce.

We could smell the intestines even before they hit the table; their earthy, distinctive aroma and flavor definitely an acquired taste. And after one bite, I had not yet acquired it. Mike from Yonkers commented, as if he were an expert in the preparation of Szechuan-prepared intestines, that he thought they were a tad undercooked. Zio wasn’t sure what they were exactly. “Chinese chitlins,” Gerry barked back. Whatever they were, they obscured the Chinese string bean, because if there was a string bean in the dish, it was impossible to find. The double cooked pork was thinly-sliced and with a salted, bacon-like flavor and a comforting rim of fat around the me. The most remarkable dish, however, was the lamb, served in aluminum foil, coated in a cumin-Szechuan peppercorn rub and tongue numbingly addictive. Despite our pleasure with the intense spice of the dishes, we were pleased when the sautéed spinach arrived to offset the heat onslaught.

cumin rubbed lamb

 Dessert was not on the menu; there was nothing to cool down our palates, no orange slices, no ice cream, no pineapple; nothing except for the frozen Flushing air. By the time we left, the round tables were full; patrons were dipping raw meats and vegetables with chopsticks into boiling pots of water cooked on burners on the tabletops and holding them in the pot until they cooked. I wanted to know what it was they had ordered. I asked, but the only response in English I got was “hot pot.” I left it at that—it was their world, we were only visiting. 

Little Pepper, I think, along with Tandoori Hut and Upi Jaya, remains as one of our best experiences.  But I have not returned since our 2007 outing and was very disheartened to read a rumor that it had closed. The news about its closing throughout the New York food blog world was sketchy and thankfully, not accurate. Little Pepper did not close, but relocated from the original Roosevelt Avenue location in Flushing to College Point Boulevard, also in Flushing. There are no more excuses. A return visit is now required.

One Response to “A Cold Sweat in Flushing”

  1. Gregory Lorenz June 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    what a great place. and i’m in the land of great places! japan! and your return to LP must include ‘hot pot’ it exists in a million guises in the east, from mongolian (north china, duh) to shabu-shabu (japan, not duh) so named due to the swishing sound of the meat in the pot. all of it great fun and involving beer or asian spirits
    (in a glass).

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