This Chinese spot brings the heat

An explosion of flavours on Somerset

  • Name + address: Chili Chili, 706 Somerset St. W.

  • Type of food: Sichuan

  • Appetizers: $5.99-$13.99

  • Mains:$14.99-$23.99

  • Diet: Meat, seafood

  • Wheelchair accessibility: No

  • LCBO Licensed: No

  • Website: no website

Four years ago I walked by, what seemed to me, a newly opened restaurant on Somerset. It’s located below street level and never appeared to be open. Through the semi-darkened windows it appeared that it hadn’t even opened.

This went on for years until a few weeks ago when I saw two families having lunch.  I’d been on my way to another restaurant for this review but when I saw that Chili Chili was open I had to take the opportunity.

I walked in and was greeted by a simple room that might just be called “Cafeteria Chic'' with one wall covered in a mural. The mural showed workers with arms raised in clenched fists and after my meal I gave it the name “Spiceheads Unite.”

Green beans with minced pork

Green beans with minced pork. Ralf Joneikies/Ottawa Lookout

The server delivered the menu and took extra time to explain things to me. While for some of us this isn’t necessary, I’m always appreciative of the courtesy and he did suggest that there would be a few things involving intestines that might not be for my palate. He was right.

Green bean with minced pork is a dish that has long stood out as the benchmark for me, the version at Red Star in Vancouver being a particularly excellent example. The version at Chili Chili is every bit as good with the tender and sweet beans made satisfying by the concentration of good soy sauce and chili flakes.

The pork was nicely done and hadn’t lost any pork character as it felt hand chopped or only put through the meat grinder once rather than twice.

Clams with enoki and vermicelli

Chili Chili Clams with enoki and vermicelli. Ralf Joneikies/Ottawa Lookout

Then came the eye-opener: clams with enoki mushrooms and a rice vermicelli. For $18 this new addition to the menu was so loaded with fresh clams, I wondered how they could be making money on it.

It was also loaded with sichuan peppercorns to the point that I frequently needed to take a water break. This type of pepper is deceptive in that it still allows for all the flavours of a recipe to shine while slowly building the heat and numbing the tongue.

The sauce was complex and so delicious that I found it difficult to stop eating, but the heat soon got the better of me and inevitably I found myself mopping the brow.

There was so much of it that I took it home and had it the next night as dinner. It had lost nothing either in flavour or texture after being reheated and it’s become one of the most memorable Chinese dishes I’ve had to date.

Chili Chili does not make food for the faint of heart. It delivers traditional cuisine for those experienced in old school Chinese cooking and I am very much looking forward to exploring this menu further.