Went to a new place last night ---
What I still love about the peninsula is I can find an entire genre of food - and certainly a few dishes - anytime I'm feeling bored. We were bored last night (after a delightfully comforting meal the night before at Pasta Moon in HMB, GET. THE. SPECIALS.)
I suggested Red Hot Chilli Pepper, since I had seen the Eater (?) note that they had a dish so hot they make you sign a waver and give you free beer for a week if you finish it. RHCP is on San Carlos right by the train station, right next to another indian place that smelled good and was crowded, and a sports bar that had a good looking tap line and probably decent burgers (Sneakers).
RHCP specializes in Desi Chinese, or Indian Chinese. Even better, there are dishes like Hakka Lamb which are indian takes on regional chinese dishes. The Y*lp reviews were scattered all over the map, from "inedibly hot" to "I couldn't taste the spice", but people focuses on the Chilli (sic) Chicken, the Chicken Momo, and the Gobi Manchurian. The Ghost Chicken (the super hot one with the free beer) wasn't mentioned.
The place is just slightly upscale. It's been refreshed and made modern by decent lighting, some statues, and bright paint. The chairs are rather uncomfortable (at least at the bar) and left over from some previous incarnation. The place is kind of large, with lots of room between the tables, and many groups. The indian families were minimum 4, some 12, and a few kids running around (like an actual indian or chinese place). It's a great mix of foodie enough for adults but you could bring a 6 year old (or two) and no one would care.
There was a line coming in, and the place was kind of full, but it just seemed to take some time to gather together tables for groups. We scuttled over to the bar (later joined by the only other white couple). I wouldn't order a cocktail there, and the wine list was somewhat sad but plausible, the beers on tap were OK but not well selected. I had a tsing tao.
It's a little hard to critique something like Desi Chinese, because it's supposed to be a little gloopy and slapdash. I did eat chinese in Chennai in '96, when the only restaurants were Pizza and Chinese, and that one meal was pretty bad, but very popular. I've had a few other versions of Gobi Manchurian, it's on a dozen restaurants in the south bay, and I've talked to the owner of Passage 2 India, who keeps an entire Desi section on her dinner buffet.
My best guess about Desi is it should have brighter, richer, and more complex spices (more "masala") than standard chinese. More star anise, more cardamom, less ma la, and plenty of homey gloop. The dishes here fit the bill, although I don't think would be the best in class in the bay area. RHCP is clearly popular among the local indian population, which is also what the P2I lady told me.
Nostalgia, one guesses.
The Momos had a pre-made skin - big minus! - but the internals were great, an explosion of ginger and strange spices. The dipping sauce was even better, a real peculiar combination of indian and chinese, with funny threads running through it that were probably mango. The chili chicken wasn't that hot (could have stood a step higher) but I think we were getting "kitchen default", as our waiter was from the bar and unlikely noted down anything special about us - just about everyone had chilli chicken on the table. The best of that I've had is Tumeric in Sunnyvale, and this was gloopier with a bit less spice presence. The Hakka Lamb was almost mild, but had a fun taste profile - lots of anise.
With a couple of beers and leaving quite full, we were out the door for $70 for 2 people and our food could have fed 3 or maybe 4. I would call the place a bargain at $40, reasonable at $50~60, and $70 was a little high but not insulting. We kept picking at the food even after we were "finished".
Is it the best Desi Chinese around? Probably not. They could use some experimentation on spice levels, and getting more Taste in the dish (taste level was going up in the sauce as we were eating). Were they good, fun, pleasant? Absolutely!
I'd recommend a stop here. San Carlos is overrun by italian places all serving the same thing (Limone, Positano), Cal-whatever (Town), and it has Refuge and Office, and I like Mythos for cal-med, but the only interesting chinese place is Panda Dumpling (tell me otherwise), and there's Thai at Thai Time (with Real German Beer), and there's Speederia for Real NYC Slices, Lulus and a couple of authentic taquerias, then were are you? All the Japanese is in San Mateo, RWC has some hits, but It's nice to have someplace fun, accessible, and truly interesting.
(PS. Bair Island, which I really liked the looks of, seems closed now. Never made it there.)