3910 Maple Rd., Amherst, NY 14226
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A cumulatively large, reasonably priced collection of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, heavier on Chinese, with generally fine to good overall quality, and good portion sizes. Friendly, attentive service in a setting that offers comparatively more class than local takeout places.
None of the items we've tested here was a standout on flavor, freshness, or authenticity; appetizer selection is extremely limited and seemingly all pre-made, while some entree items actually disappoint a little. Somewhat bland interior detracts from otherwise good impressions.
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Amherst Chinese Vietnamese
"In an area where truly great pho is uncommon, Red Pepper's version is enough to do the trick, though friends are bigger fans of both the beef and veggie versions than we are. "
If we rated restaurants on pure friendliness, Amherst's Red Pepper - a Chinese restaurant with a Vietnamese side menu - would come pretty close to scoring four stars; on our three visits over the last six or so months, we've watched the staff deftly handle everything from noisy kids to multiple unrequested drink refills, speedy delivery of plates, and equally prompt cleanups. When it comes to service, there's no doubt that the place is run real well. But what about the actual food? In short, though we've kept coming back in hopes that we'd be really impressed by at least one full meal here, it just hasn't happened. Here's the story.
Set in a mini strip mall next to a university supplies store, Red Pepper's not a fancy place, yet it's not a hole in the wall, either. There are white linen tablecloths and professionally dressed servers - absent these days at virtually every other Chinese restaurant in the area - both offsets to an otherwise aged, bland interior, generally populated by a mix of customers. Older couples and college students seem always to dominate the place, with young families commonly taking up tables as well. And everyone gets two menus: there's a familiar, Americanized Chinese list with all the expected dishes, and a smaller, shorter Vietnamese one divided into five main sections. There aren't any major surprises here.
Red Pepper's Vietnamese fare tends to be a step shy of authentic but otherwise somewhere between fine and good. For the meal photographed here, our entrees were heavily Vietnamese, starting with the menu's first section: appetizers. We would have sampled more appetizers, but Red Pepper's menu is surprisingly short on options, offering only four Chinese and four Vietnamese picks, three of each identical to the others but for their innards.
Consequently, we tried both the Fresh Spring Rolls with Shredded Pork and Vegetables ($3.50) and the Fresh Spring Rolls with Pork & Shrimp ($4), essentially the same wrapped-up salad-like item save for the presence of shrimp in one; served two rolls per plate, the soft, room temperature rice paper rolls were a little on the chewy side - obviously made some time before our order - and neither the shrimp nor the pork tasted completely fresh. They were neither bad nor great. On an earlier visit, we had the fried Vietnamese Egg Roll ($2.50), a crispy version of the rice paper roll with a minced meat interior and a lettuce leaf as an optional exterior wrap, served with a sweet bowl of dipping fish sauce. It was similarly fine; to our tastes, the fried version is probably a safer pick as its prior freshness isn't as much of an issue, though it's quite oily.
On the Chinese side of the menu, we started with the Steamed Dumplings ($5) - an order of six soft wanton-like dumplings stuffed with an unidentified meat, probably pork. Served warm rather than hot, the dumplings seemed like they were prepackaged rather than homemade, as their outsides were properly steamed but again a little chewy, while their insides were blander than fresh dumpling meat typically is. Repeatedly dipping them in the included soy and vinegar sauce did help, but only once they'd been sliced open. A Vegetable version ($5), ordered on a previous occasion, was similarly somewhat modest in intensity, but more appropriately so; rarely are vegetarian dumplings strongly flavored.
Thankfully, there are plenty of main courses to choose from - and reasonably priced ones, no less. This time, a member of our group ordered the entree-sized bowl of Seafood Egg Noodle Soup ($9) from the Vietnamese "Pho" (pronounced Fa) menu, somewhat mislabeled as the stringy, ramen-like noodles aren't made from rice, and the chicken broth's not based on beef, the characteristics of a real pho soup. That aside, the bowl was huge and good enough anyway, garnished with plenty of scallions and bean sprouts, three big lime chunks, and loaded with egg noodles, fish balls, and a few pieces each of shrimp and scallops. On an earlier occasion, we tried the real Pho, served in several versions with different types of beef inside - each $6 for a medium bowl, $7 for a large one - and found it to be good, but not thrilling; the beef pieces are as advertised, but the broth isn't anything special. In an area where truly great pho is uncommon, Red Pepper's version is enough to do the trick, though friends are bigger fans of both the beef and veggie ($7) versions than we are.
Another member of our group ordered the Vietnamese Vegetable Pancake ($8), a crispy rice and egg crepe that was stuffed in the center, taco-style, with a variety of vegetables: broccoli, snap peas, and so on, rather than having bits of vegetables actually infused in the pancake itself. Served with a bowl of fish sauce and a side garnish of cucumbers and cilantro, the pancake may have been the most well-liked item at the table. A bowl of Vietnamese Bun (pronounced boon, $7) with Beef arrived for the second time we've ordered it here a little bit weak in flavor and oversized in noodles, with a bunch of lettuce and decent but fatty pieces of beef inside; it was closer to the real deal in looks than the recently changed version served at both Saigon Bangkok restaurants, but still not quite right. We had to really spice it with Sriracha chili pepper sauce to improve its taste, but it worked.
The final item in our most recent order was also the most expensive: the Dragon & Phoenix ($14), a single oversized plate with General Tso's Chicken on one side and shrimp with water chestnuts and white sauce on the other. The phoenix or "bird" side, General Tso's, was a fine but not great rendition of the classic, a little too sweet and light on crispiness, short on spice despite the obvious presence of a few chili peppers on the plate. By comparison, the shrimp or dragon side was relatively sparing on prawns, though those that were there were appropriately flavored given the lightness of the typical Chinese white sauce, and accompanied by plenty of fresh vegetables. Other Chinese "House Specialty" dishes we've tried here, such as the Mongolian Beef ($14), a plate of sliced steak mixed with scallions and onions, are typical of local takeout places in quality of preparation and ingredients.
Overall, though we're aware that Red Pepper has quite a few local fans - especially in Amherst, where higher-class Chinese places have all but disappeared - our enthusiasm for this restaurant is modest; it's a better pick than neighbors such as Pho Saigon and Seoul Garden, but we'd sooner go to Saigon Bangkok for Vietnamese, and meals of similar Chinese quality can be found at many takeouts. Come here if you're looking for nice, family-friendly service and the ability to feed a group for a very reasonable price; pass on it if you're expecting fine dining or strict authenticity of either cuisine.