But how good is Spiced? Worth the recent wait for it to reopen after being shut down for weeks by the Health Department? A group of us, including a few food writers, went east to find out.
Food writers, some, but food freaks, all. And all enticed by the name, wanting to eat as spicy as they could serve it. Such that, despite my love of chilis and fire, I think we failed to get a good balance of dishes. I mean, c’mon, look at all the red oil at our table.
But first things first. One thing I immediately loved about Spiced is the case of cold dishes at the front of the restaurant. This is a must-stop. Three items for six dollars. The choices change constantly, but generally include peanuts, various body parts of the bodies (think stomachs, kidneys and tongues) of various animals (pigs and cows and chickens), seaweed salad, and more. I even saw duck heads in there at one point.
On this particular night, I ordered the other parts of the pig, which you might recall is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes. It was good, but the boiled beef with hot sauce might have been my top dish of the night, as the meat soaked up lots of the fiery liquid. There was plenty of hot stuff to go around, including a frog dish that was similar to the beef dish (but was, I believe, from a different chili section – see below), and a mediocre ma po tofu. (Mine is much better!) A universal hit was the plate of dumplings that were fried to a solid finish, thereby hidden when flipped and served.
Ordering at Spiced can be intimidating for the uninitiated and initiated alike. There are many categories, so ordering can take time. The “green chilli hot sauce,” “pickled chilli pepper,” “chopped chilli pepper,” and “boiled with chilli hot sauce” sections are worthy of extended study and understanding. Oh, and not to mention the “spiced hot pots” and “sizzling” sections, too.
Second visit, largely due to my dining companions (a bit less chili-chasing), we had a better-balanced meal, with more dumplings, as well as eggplant and broccoli. We ordered just a couple of hot dishes, including my pick of lamb with hot pepper in dried pot. The lamb had great flavor, but I would have liked even slightly larger pieces.
While the lamb dish had just the tiniest amount of promised Chinese celery, the Chinese celery with baked tofu was a no-show. Instead, per the server’s recommendation, we substituted Chinese “vegetable” with Chinese celery, but it was simply a plate of Chinese broccoli without any of the promised celery. Worse, they were out of cooked rice. A Chinese restaurant without rice at the ready at 7pm on a Saturday night? This meant an extensive wait with the rest of the food sitting at the table; only after I saw other tables getting rice was I able to flag a server to bring ours.
So while the service can be spotty, the food is good, overall. I like the variety, including the cold case. But I prefer the depth of flavors at Bamboo Garden. The biggest letdown: At Spiced, the Chongqing chicken was far too breaded and lacked punch. This was surprising, given that the chef is from Chongqing. But my hopes for the dish were dashed from the outset, when I learned that the chicken was boneless. With the bone is always better!
And don’t get me started on spice level. I’ve complained about this before (do I do nothing but complain lately?), so I was excited that first meal at Spiced when i found myself with a group of chiliheads all agreeing to order above the highest spice level. Spicy for some, but I didn’t even break a sweat. Darn it. Next time, I’m going to double-down on the spice level.