Sichuan destination Red ‘n’ Hot has survived on ever-changing Chalton Street for well over a decade.
Not wandered down there recently? The thoroughfare boasts some of the area’s best-loved eating options, including awesome Japanese diner Mai Sushi, tasty pizza at Albertini, posh burgers at Cattle & Co, and delectable deli Cheezelo.
I first ate at Red ‘n’ Hot back when it opened, and its scarlet-and-black interior remains unchanged a dozen years later, adorned with a wall hanging or two.
My tip is to grab a red banquette by the window, especially at lunchtime on one of the market days (Wednesdays-Fridays) for the liveliest view. And inside it’s generally busy with a combo of large families, locals and solo visiting businessmen.
So what exactly is Sichuan or Szechuan cuisine (either spelling is correct)? Simply a style of Chinese cooking originating from Sichuan Province, whose big flavours, intense aromas and eye-watering spiciness all result from a single-minded focus on garlic and chilli peppers. Yep, it’s super-healthy too.
Traditionally composed of seven basic flavours – sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty – these are all more than covered in the hefty, and not unintimidating, book-like menu. Its many pages list endless cold and hot starters, from jelly fish to ox stomach, as well as easier-going vegetarian options.
If it’s your first time, head straight to the last page of cheaper lunch specials, where you’ll be able to eat a single plate for under a tenner, or a couple of courses for just over.
A bowl of hot sour soup (£3.95, below) is a good starter. Deep-filled, primarily made with stir-fried shredded meat, noodles, black mustard seeds, and a lipsmackingly savoury broth, its slightly glutinous texture was strewn with surprises here and there: bamboo shoots, ginger, peas, mushrooms. Even tiny prawns.
It’s well-known that Sichuan peppercorn can cause a tingly sensation in the mouth. This was evident in my main, Ma Po Tou Fu (£8.80). Translated roughly as “pockmarked granny’s tofu”, it’s complete with what the menu describes as a “hot and numbing gravy”.
Marked as authentically Sichuan, it’s made from broad bean chilli paste and fat cubes of beancurd daubed in a minced pork sauce. Sharply garlicky, and packed with umami, I was concerned it might be excessively tongue-numbing, but in fact it was entirely manageable, the mound of perfectly cooked rice a useful ally.
If you can’t handle any fire whatsoever, there are plenty of lighter choices: chicken fried noodles, butterfly prawns, sweetcorn soup. And that mainstay, crispy duck.
But my advice is don’t be scared to try a few things you wouldn’t normally. After all, Sichuan cooking is so world-respected that in 2011 Unesco declared Chengdu, its capital, a city of gastronomy to recognise its outstanding contribution. You can’t say fairer than that.