Those familiar with the charming Szechuan eatery Cooking Girl know that its newly opened sister restaurant, Pepper Twins, has big shoes to fill. Since setting down its roots in Montrose, Cooking Girl has satisfied diners looking for an authentic Chinatown experience without having to leave the comfort of the Loop. Given the huge success of her first venture, it makes sense that the owner, Yunan Yang, has kept much of the same model for her second — Pepper Twins’ dishes preserve the classic Szechuan flavor profile without falling prey to monotony. In fact, a large part of the restaurant’s uniqueness comes from its delicate balance between the traditional dishes Yang perfected at Cooking Girl and its more modern dishes, creating a fresh yet comfortingly familiar dining experience.
Just a 10 minute drive from campus in River Oaks, Pepper Twins held its grand opening on Sept. 20. Yang hopes Pepper Twins’ larger venue will give her more room for creativity than her cramped Montrose quarters. At 7 p.m. a few days after opening, the restaurant was about half full. The dichotomy was evident as soon as we walked in; the upscale decor alongside the paper menus, the playlist that alternated between traditional Chinese songs and modern Chinese pop, the predominantly Asian audience in the predominantly white River Oaks.
Yang describes Pepper Twin’s cuisine as “country-style, organic Chinese.” The restaurant emphasizes its organic, farm-raised, high quality ingredients, which stand out among a Chinese food scene that is often indifferent with regards to ingredient sourcing. The menu touts Berkshire pork, certified Angus beef and Spring Mountain Farms chicken, the majority of which are sourced from deliberately chosen, pasture-based farms. Taking this into account, the prices are extremely reasonable, with most entrees falling between $12-15, generously portioned and served with complimentary steamed rice.
The menu’s combination of Szechuan and Chinese American dishes may be slightly off-putting for purists — I know I personally wrinkled my nose after spotting the dreaded orange chicken and broccoli beef. However, there is a good balance; the Szechuan dishes retain their authentic flavors while the Chinese American dishes provide familiar options for less daring or non-Chinese diners. There is a wide range of spice levels and quite a few gluten-free options. Though there are vegetarian dishes, the restaurant is definitely not vegetarian-friendly, as even some of the tofu and eggplant dishes have pork. After reading through a menu full of quirky names like “Mr. Radish,” “Princess CiCi” and “Dancing Squid,” my party ended up ordering the Fish Loves Tofu, Pepper Twins Chicken and Colorful Berkshire Pork Silk.
The Fish Loves Tofu is a rendition of the famous Mapo tofu with boiled white fish slipped in with the broth. This dish displays everything there is to love about Szechuan dining — delicate cubes of silken tofu and slices of tender fish suspended in a vivid red chile and bean paste sauce, and topped with dried chilies and scallions. The less prominently displayed peppercorns gradually reveal their presence in the tingling sensation that strikes a few mouthfuls after the bold spiciness of the chilies. Overall, the spices are used with a cautious hand. Especially when eaten with rice, I could enjoy delicious mouthful after mouthful without having to stop for a gulp of ice water.
The Pepper Twins Chicken, consisting of stir-fried cubes of glistening chicken nestled in an abundance of diced imported green chilies, tomatoes, garlic and peppercorns, is beautifully presented. However, though the chicken was moist and tender, the dish lacks the tofu’s nuanced yet robust flavors, instead tasting mostly of salt and spice. The tomatoes add a bit of acid, but the overwhelming spice was missing a crucial second flavor to balance it out.
The Colorful Berkshire Pork Silk succeeds where the chicken fails; its sweet, sour and spicy flavors extend well beyond the worn path of peppercorn and chili. The “pork silk” refers to the star of the dish, thin strips of tender, juicy Berkshire Pork. Thinly sliced carrots offer a vibrant orange color, while sliced scallions, wood ear and bamboo round off the stir fry into an exciting medley of textures. The sauce is slightly reminiscent of Kung Pao chicken, tasting mostly of soy sauce, chili sauce and hoisin sauce. When placed over rice to soak up the delicious sauce, the Pork Silk is a wonderful, full-bodied, satisfying dish.
Pepper Twins deserves a warm welcome from not just loyal fans of Cooking Girl, but everyone looking for a quality meal in an inviting atmosphere. The staff is friendly, efficient and patient enough to laugh along at my unfortunate attempts to pronounce the Chinese names on the menu. Though some dishes fall short, the menu as a whole displays both the chef’s expertise with fundamental Szechuan flavors and her willingness to explore beyond those boundaries.