Went with three friends last night for dinner at Chilli Garden. The four of us all lament the loss of New Taste, and do miss that good ma-la burn. I had tried Chilli Garden once and was spectacularly underwhelmed, but it was late in the midst of a lunch hour, so I was willing to give the place a second try.
We wound up with five things -- started with the chili oil dumplings (hong you chao shou). The last time, this had been sickly wontons in an insipid sauce. This time around was a different matter entirely -- lovely delicate light dumplings, sauce with a nice blend of heat, sichuan peppercorn, salt (from black beans?), though I do miss the sugar that Sichuan Garden and New Taste both also add.
Mapo doufu also had a very strong black bean sauce presence, which made it a pleasant surprise -- initially felt a little bland in the mouth, but the heat built up and the sichuan peppercorn numbness accumulated on the corners of my mouth after a minute or two of trying the stuff. Very nicely, subtly done.
Boiled beef (shuizhu niurou) had a similar blend of heat and numbing. Not the best stuff that I've had, but I've noticed that even my favorite places for this have not had 100% consistency either. (Which is odd, because every time I've made the stuff, it's come out pretty similar.) Pepper chicken (lazi jiding) was chunks of boneless chicken, chopstick-sized chunks of hot green pepper and slices of dried red pepper. This was more heat than numbing also, esp. in the dried red peppers, which a friend of mine assured me was hotter than usual.
I did miscalculate somewhat -- with these three, garlic spinach greens doesn't really have much of a chance (it was fine), and a dish of Chinese smoked pork (sichuan larou) seemed unassuming -- looked like giant hunks of bacon, with a lot more fat than meat, and unimpressive for any flavor of any kind.
There were a handful of dessert options, including the black sesame paste in glutinous rice balls (tangyuan), one of my favorite things. But nobody had any room after wolfing down what we ordered. In sum, we were pleasantly surprised that it was better than the previous lunch. Still not in the class of Sichuan Garden on a good night, Clinton's Taste of China in CT or -- sigh -- New Taste, but it's a fine option that we'll return to if we're in the north suburbs and hungry for Sichuan food.