Before I met General Tso, what I knew about Chinese cuisine fit neatly in a can of La Choy chow mein.
At our first meeting, his chicken conquered my 17-year-old palate. Sweet, sour, crunchy, fiery – and enough calories for days. There’s no denying the dollar-to-flavor ratio of a properly executed General Tso’s chicken lunch special. Enraptured, I worked through the stations of the Chinese-American canon, dishes like pepper steak, crab rangoon and sesame chicken.
Since I started covering restaurants, Chinese restaurants with deeper menus of dishes drawing on regional cuisines – Northern Chinese, Shanghaiese, Sichuan, Xinjiang – have gotten most of my attention. Even though most of those also boasted a stellar Chinese-American lineup, I took General Tso for granted.
Yet when I stopped by Red Pepper a few weeks ago, the first time since the pandemic started, the nostalgia landed like lead egg foo yung. I missed this.
Not just the food. I’ll take the pork fried rice, thanks, not white rice, and the hot and sour soup over wonton or eggdrop. Add crun-chewy deep-fried chicken nugs doused in spicy syrup, and that’s a whole Six Flags full of fun in a $10.95 General Tso’s chicken lunch special.
Where Red Pepper excels is its combination of first-rate Chinese-American classics and old-school service, swift and sure. You can dine well on its takeout. But if you like to linger over crispy noodles dipped in plum sauce, use a cloth napkin, pour tea and catch up with friends, Red Pepper ought to be on your dance card.
Owner Marten Tu, born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, oversees a dining room that can deal aces from either side. Pho, noodle soup in chicken or beef ($12.95), and bun, grilled meat or seafood with shredded vegetables as a rice noodle salad ($12.95-$15.95), are respectable versions of Vietnamese standards. The fried Vietnamese egg rolls, of ground pork, cabbage and carrot (2/$4.95), are almost as delightful as 99 Fast Food’s.
The Vietnamese-style deep-fried noodle nest topped with seafood ($22.95) has a fried bird’s nest of egg noodles that are topped with shrimp, scallops and chunks of lobster stir-fried in a mild, glossy sauce with bok choy, baby corn, carrots and mushrooms. It’s a race against the clock for crispness fiends, as the sauce gradually renders the noodles soft.
Vietnamese roast duck noodle soup ($14.95) has called me back time and again. Half a roast duck is chopped into chunks, bones, skin and all, and briefly simmered in chicken broth before joining rice noodles and a big handful of fresh chopped cilantro in the bowl. It’s a bone-nibbler’s delight, backed up with a plate of optional add-ins like bean sprouts and aromatic leaves of fresh Thai basil.
But there’s no denying the majority of Red Pepper adherents order from the Chinese-American side of the menu. Lunch specials ($9.95-$10.95) are the best way to flip through the catalog, with choice of soup, choice of rice and about half an entrée helping of a main dish. That’s why during lunch hours (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) you should expect a crowd for dine-in.
The cloth-covered tables are loaded with plates of ginger beef with string beans, chicken with eggplant, pork with black bean sauce and bowls of soup. Vegans have to skip the soup, but there’s tofu versions of General Tso’s and sesame chicken, eggplant with garlic sauce, and dry sautéed string beans among 10 vegan lunch options.
Majestic orange beef ($20.95) is meat sliced thin, marinated, battered and fried into a jerky chip texture, then wokked in an orange-peel-tinged maelstrom and tossed in glossy sweet-sour-smoky sauce.
Moo shu chicken ($13.95), with its stir-fried chicken, cabbage and mushrooms, arrives ready to be tucked into crêpe-like pancakes, smeared with hoisin (sweet Chinese barbecue sauce).
Sesame chicken ($16.95), Red Pepper’s second-best selling dish after General Tso’s, is another battered-fried-chicken-bites dish, distinguished by its use of poultry slices rather than chunks and its distinctly nutty sauce, a touch more tangy than the pour-over-pancakes sweetness of General Tso.
Another Red Pepper highlight is stir-fried pea shoots with garlic ($15.95), which might sound odd until you tuck into a plate of saucy greenery far more interesting than, say, spinach. The tendrils are blanched before getting wok-fired with enough garlic to count as another vegetable. The chew reassured me that my daily fiber intake was met.
The bill comes with orange wedges and fortune cookies.
There was a time I turned my nose up at sesame chicken. Having lived through years of pinched pandemic existence has led me to a more expansive view: Chinese-American cuisine as enjoyed at Red Pepper is one of the truly genius culinary hacks in American history.
General Tso, I surrender.
3910 Maple Road, Amherst (redpepperbuffalo.com, 831-3878)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: lunches, $9.95-$11.95; dishes, $11.95-$34.95.
Ambiance: bustling family scene.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten free: many choices
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