For years, denizens of the Springfield area got their dim sum fix at Golden Hong Kong, a Cantonese restaurant next to Trader Joe’s inside Springfield Plaza. This March, Alvin Zhang took over the space and began to serve food in the dining room the next month. He rechristened the restaurant Hot Peppercorn Asian Cuisine & Bar and added dishes from his native Sichuan province.
“In this area, there are no other Sichuan restaurants,” he reasoned. And in greater NoVA, there are few as worthy of a visit. Zhang developed his expertise serving his spicy specialties, as well as other pan-Chinese favorites, at Shanghai Lounge on Wisconsin Avenue in DC. He says that he gained a reputation in the District for his dry pot dishes.
This is completely reasonable. Portion control is a challenge in the face of the sizzling pot of veggies and meat—in my case, velvety lamb. Slices of potato, broccoli florets, carrots, celery, and lotus root are just some of the vegetables that benefit from a toss in the sauce freckled with both chiles and floral Sichuan peppercorn.
The sensation this combination of spices produces is known in Mandarin as “ma la,” or the sum of the characters that mean “numbing” and “spicy.” The Sichuan peppercorn is the source of the first feeling, thanks to the presence of hydroxy-alpha sanshool, a molecule that produces a unique tingle. Dried chiles are responsible for the heat, which was probably dumbed down a few hairs for this lao wai (non-Chinese) diner but still packed a pleasant punch.
Another stellar example of ma la at Hot Peppercorn is the la zi ji, identified on the menu as “diced chicken with chile pepper.” The mini chicken nuggets in versions of this dish that I’ve tried from Xinjiang to Houston are usually marinated and then fried in a thin coating of potato flour. In the hands of chef and co-owner Chuan Mao, the coating is more of a batter, akin to the crackling jacket on a McNugget. At first bite, I pooh-poohed this as an Americanization. But with each forkful I took, my awe for this innovation grew. Even more crispness only serves to enhance the oily ma la of the dish. The crevices in the batter? They may just hide an aromatic bite of peppercorn.
Suan cai yu is another dish that I enjoyed almost as much at Hot Peppercorn as I did in China. Its description on the menu as “fish with sour cabbage” only gives a thumbnail of the full picture. The spicy soup does indeed contain flounder and pickled cabbage (yes, the Chinese have their own version of sauerkraut), but the dish’s greatest pleasures come from a pair of other ingredients. The first of these is skinny rice noodles, which slip away into mouths so quickly you may wonder if they were ever really there. The other is yet more chiles, which contribute a heat that builds with each bite. Skinny slices of garlic also bring their own warm funk to the tangy, spicy party.
The other flounder dish I tried is less successful. Shui zhu yu, or “Sichuan boiled fish,” is usually known for a fiery, oily broth that contrasts with the pillowy texture of the seafood. (It’s great with beef, too.) At Hot Peppercorn, the name often applied to the dish, “water-boiled fish,” is all too apt. Though the serving dish is dotted with masses of chile seeds, the watery sauce tastes more strongly of plain oil than it does of an inferno. The same is true of the oddly sweet Sichuan wontons in hot chile oil.
A better option for dumplings is the xiao long bao. Soup dumplings have (literally) exploded in our region in recent years. These petite treats aren’t the best you’ll find anywhere, but the meaty minced pork and gingery broth that bursts from thin skins more than do the job. They’re also a well-earned respite from all the heat.
So is the dim sum. A wide-ranging menu of it is served all day. In fact, despite the large roster of entrées and appetizers on offer, Zhang estimates that dim sum accounts for about 30 percent of Hot Peppercorn’s orders. One bite of the taro dumpling and it’s easy to taste why.
Though not as lofty a coral formation as some taro dumplings, the exterior doesn’t skimp on airy crunch. In fact, just picking up the delicate dumpling with chopsticks is bound to break it in two. Inside, the diner will find a thin layer of taro purée enfolding a thick stew of cubed pork.
Save the one visit during which I waited 10 minutes to be seated while the counter staffer took phone orders, the service at Hot Peppercorn is solid. This is in line with an aesthetic that’s efficient and little more or less.
But I still say Hot Peppercorn is worth a drive to Springfield Plaza. Zhang has brought a vibrant taste of his homeland to the strip mall. For those wishing to add some spice to their lives, this could be the place.
6396 Springfield Plz., Springfield
See This: Lucky cats and a small fountain greet guests at this otherwise mostly practical restaurant space.
Eat This: Soup dumplings, lamb dry pot, diced chicken with chile pepper
Dim sum: $3.95–$9.50
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner