I bet you never thought you could get fresh, high-quality, authentic Chinese food in the 'burbs, did you? And I bet you never thought you'd find it at a little restaurant, tucked into an unassuming strip mall, and located next to a laundromat called "The Lost Sock," right? Guess again, peeps!
Saturday night D. and I were up in Burlington doing errands and shopping - I know, just the kind of exciting stuff you do when you have a sitter. Well, even if you're not bordering on the desperately lame like us, Billerica should be on your list of destinations for some of the most fantastic Sichuan cuisine around Boston.
Sichuan Gourmet has been around for a while - there are two locations, one in Framingham and one in Billerica. We've only ever gone to the Billerica outpost, but the Framingham site gets great reviews too. The Billerica restaurant is small, very casual and is consistently packed with larger parties comprised of multi-generational Chinese families. It's warm, and smells so, so good when you enter. But the highlight, friends, is the food - oh! It is so spicy, so tasty, so irresistible. Every time we go, we ask ourselves, "why don't we come here more often?"
So first off - make sure you understand that food from the Sichuan province of China is known for its heat. And while they will tone down the spiciness for you, if you want the full-frontal experience of Sichuanese food, you've gotta crave the heat. And then there are those famous Sichuan peppercorns - they produce a numbing sensation on your tongue after you eat them . . . really hard to describe, but addicting.
Highlights for us from the menu are:
- Sichuan Wonton with Spicy Chili Sauce: warm, delicate pork-filled wontons floating in a spicy chili sauce. Slurp them up and fight over who gets the last one!
- Fresh Bamboo Shoots with Spicy Wonder Sauce: fresh bamboo shoots bear absolutely no comparison to the ones you've had from the can. The fresh ones are tender and super-tasty and not fibrous like their canned cousins. These are drizzled with "wonder sauce" (who can resist that name?) which definitely contains chili oil, and then sprinkled with a few sesame seeds. This is a cold dish.
- Dan Dan Noodles: is a classic Sichuan dish, but if you've had it in Americanized Chinese restaurants and tasted peanut butter or sesame paste, those are not authentic. The real dan dan noodles are paired with a spicy sauce with preserved vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan peppers, pork, and scallions, and they are damn good.
- Dried Chicken with Chili Sauce: small crispy-fried cubes of chicken with fresh green chilies and dried red chilies - literally a sea of chilies - and yes, there are people who eat the entire plate (we can only handle the chicken and some of the green chilies). I had the rest of this for breakfast on Sunday morning!
- MaPo Tofu with Minced Pork: this is another a popular Sichuan dish. Large cubes of soft tofu are set in a spicy chili- and bean-based sauce, then topped with minced pork. Again, this is not the dumbed-down version you might have had elsewhere - true Mapo Doufu is super spicy with both conventional "heat" spiciness and the characteristic "mala" (numbing spiciness) flavor of Sichuan cuisine.
You should know that most of the waitstaff does not speak a ton of English - but the woman who does the seating does, and she's super friendly and ever-eager to answer questions. Don't shy away from hailing her and asking questions about the menu - you will learn a lot and you may discover dishes you'll dream about the next day.
And while Sichuan Gourmet does serve more Americanized Chinese food, we've never tried it, so I can't vouch for its taste. L. has snarfed down their lo mein, and for the truly faint of heart, there is always boiled white rice. But if you crave spicy, flavorful food and want to experience authentic preparations of traditional Sichuan dishes, this is a place you'll want to find. Enjoy!