Although we still miss Vic’s, it’s remarkable to note that its successor at 1125 San Carlos Avenue, Red Hot Chilli Pepper, has become a mainstay of downtown with an almost decade tenure in the City of Good Eating. As its name implies, this restaurant is all about the spice, with a large menu with decent prices all served in a good sized space. The restaurant describes itself as “Indo-Chinese” or “Indo-Asian,” which are culinarily vague terms. Historically and politically, “Indochina” generally refers to mainland Southeast Asia, but Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s menu is more akin to “Indian Chinese” cuisine, which is Chinese food adapted to have more Indian flavors (the backstory on their website sums it up as follows: “…culinary adventures of our well-traveled chef bring Indian style Chinese to the Bay Area from Kolkata, India.” So, Red Hot Chilli Pepper is somewhere on a Venn diagram with places like King Chuan, Saffron, and Rangoon Ruby, but probably further away from the likes of Siamese Kitchen or Pho Vinh.
The restaurant appears to a draw a decent sized crowd both for dinner and lunch, but given its size one can usually walk in without a reservation, although it will certainly be tighter on Friday and Saturday evenings. The menu leans in to the spiciness of the dishes, with a one, two, or three pepper icon to denote spiciness. It’s relatively modest average review on Yelp may expose the fact that this cuisine isn’t for everyone. And, admittedly, the “you need to sign a liability waiver to eat the three pepper dishes” is a bit hokey. We haven’t risked the three pepper dishes, as the others are plenty spicy for us. The menu is divided into soups & salads, non-vegetarian small plates, vegetarian small plates, non-vegetarian big plates, vegetarian big plates, and rice & noodles. Even the small plates are not that small, and are reasonably priced (most around $10).
The soups on the menu have this odd warning that they are served extremely hot (meaning temperature, not spice), and they indeed are. You actually have to let the bowl cool down for five minutes or so before eating – I must admit, this is a very strange approach. We tried the hot & sour soup, which had good flavor but was a perhaps a bit too salty. The sweet corn soup was very good if you don’t mind a slightly gelatinous consistency. But the stars in this restaurant are the main dishes, both meat and vegetarian. For some of the dishes, you can choose your sauce (each labeled with a different level of spiciness), including oyster, garlic, black bean, Szechwan, and Manchurian. All the sauces we have tried have been tasty, but naturally you may navigate to a particular one or two depending on your personal preference (and spice affinity). We seem to always order the one-pepper szechwan eggplant, the two-pepper chili prawns, and one or more chicken or lamb selections. They do have some non-spicy dishes, including chicken lettuce cups and some non-spicy noodle selections.
They have a sizable drink menu, with only a limited selection of wine and beers but rather dominated by the cocktails and sake drinks (yes, that’s Japanese, so I’m not sure what the connection is). There is also a very nice bar on the left side of the restaurant, where one can also order dinner. Although we have always been too full from our main courses to order dessert, they do have a number of sweet selections which, except for one or two items, deviate from the Indian Chinese theme. Maybe after all that spice, it’s just good to cool down with chocolate lava cake, fried ice cream, or toffee walnut a la mode.
The bottom line is if you’re hungry and are looking to wake up your taste buds (and maybe actually sweat a bit), Red Hot Chilli Pepper delivers a large variety of mostly successful dishes for reasonable prices.