As an avid reader and contributor to the Hungry Onion message board, I have noticed a love affair with a particular Chinese restaurant. That place is Sichuan Cottage in Marlboro. While the board is a place for debate over dining, there seems to be something about this establishment. All agree it may have the best Chinese food in Monmouth County, while others argue it could be the best in our home state of New Jersey altogether. For me, I wanted to go there for months. But I waited until the time was right. Just the other day, it finally arrived: my first experience with not only this restaurant, but authentic Sichuan food in general. I put a lot of trust in my comrades!
Sure, it has a lot of the usual Chinese suspects. There is the Pu Pu Platter, egg rolls, and chicken and broccoli. But like some other spots I have tried, like Matawan’s Shanghai Bun, you are truly doing yourself a disservice if you walk into somewhere like this and order General Tso’s. I’m no snob, but I think I would look down on such people. There is a time and a place for everything, and dinnertime at Sichuan Cottage is not the time nor the place for Sweet and Sour Chicken. Instead, after perusing the appetizers, do yourself a favor and skip right to the last page for the authentic Sichuan dishes.
Justin and I both wanted to try something different. For appetizers, we ordered the minced chicken lettuce wraps and the familiar scallion pancakes. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the wraps were of the build-your-own variety. Two separate plates arrived, one for the chicken and the other for the lettuce. The leaves were large and crunchy, perfect for filling. The chicken mixture was outstanding. It was tender and juicy, mixed with peas and carrots. There was also a sauce present, but it was light and not overpowering. The effervescent flavor of ginger managed to linger during our chowing down of this plate but never was it too strong. As for the scallion pancakes, I could take them or leave them. Not bad, but I have definitely had better. The pancakes were too thick and there was not enough scallion present—could barely taste them. But to this place’s credit, they were crispy and not greasy whatsoever.
After finishing this part of the meal, we were excited with what was to come. After reading the Hungry Onion, most members recommended the Cumin Lamb. I thought about it but I am not the biggest fan of cumin. Not sure how exactly it was prepared, I chose to skip over the seeming house favorite and go with what screamed out to my heart: the beef with roasted chili in hot chili oil. Everyone here knows I love spicy food, so I wanted to tackle this. I was expecting something lethal. This was a food which was going to grab me by the tongue and drag me to hell. It arrived and I was impressed. There were chili seeds and chunks of the pepper everywhere. I admit, I was intimidated. But then I started to eat it.
What I was met with was something much more unique. This dish was not terrifyingly spicy. I didn’t rush for the water. I didn’t choke up. Instead, the heat was mild. Indeed, it built up over time—a slow burn—but it remained mild even as I started to sweat and reached for a tissue in my pocket. This certainly was not the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, but it managed to do something I never experienced: it made my mouth numb. Yes, for a moment, the sides of my mouth felt as if I was injected with a weak strain of Novocaine. My tongue tingled. I looked over at Justin who was deep into his similarly spicy Three Pepper Chicken. He too paused from eating in a brief moment of self-examination. I think we were both curious to whether this was mind-over-matter of if we were truly experiencing numbness.
When I returned home, I read the Hungry Onion to see other people’s experiences of numbing mouths. It was true. Mine did not last a long time, but it was there. Something in the Sichuan peppercorns and flakes performs this magic on your taste-buds. Although I first looked at the bowl when it arrived and said, “There’s no way I am finishing that. Leftovers await!”, I managed to scarf down all of it. I felt like an addict compulsively making the rounds. There was no stopping me. It was that good. The portion was enormous, by the way. Large, tender, no-fat-to-em chunks of beef in a huge bowl with chili oil, the peppers themselves, and shredded vegetables. What actually sent this dish over the edge was the addition of raw, minced garlic to the top. That extra, little burst of flavor made me smile.
Meanwhile, Justin’s Three Pepper Chicken was also outstanding. As outlined in this previous review of Temple, I am no fan of being presented with a dish of fried chicken. Sichuan Cottage made it work, though. The chicken was chopped so fine that it made it easier to eat (and easier on the eyes). There must have been hundreds of pepper pieces, both red and green chili, and somehow, even though mine looked sinister, I felt his was spicier. Everything on the plate was crispy. There was no grease or sogginess anywhere. Unlike me, he had some leftovers.
The complimentary dessert of orange slices was a welcome sight. It was a light and refreshing way to end a meal so overwhelming with spice and flavor. I knew this was a winner right away. While Justin thought it was good from the start, it wasn’t until the next day when he hit up his leftovers that he exclaimed, “Damn, this place is great”. Marlboro isn’t exactly around the corner, but the next time we feel like sit-down Chinese food, we will make this the destination. This tiny restaurant (only 10 tables) cranks out gigantic flavors. Located in an unassuming strip mall, you would never realize what awaits you. Hell, I passed by this place most of my life. It took a message board to make me aware.
I am going to give Sichuan Cottage 4 out of 5 stars, but I can see that climbing on future visits. There are so many Chinese restaurants out there, and this one is a cut above. We have already discussed our next visit and both agreed that it would be hard to not order the same entrees (but would switch up the appetizers). Thank you to my Hungry Onion friends (or HO’s as we say) for this awesome recommendation.
Update (Spring 2019): We went here for the umpteenth time the other day. I just need to say that this has become the most dependable Chinese restaurant I have ever frequented. The food is identical every time. I find myself never deviating from my usuals, and neither does Justin. He orders the Three Pepper Chicken every time, just like I get the beef with roasted chili in chili oil. It is hard to try new things when these are just so good. Cannot forget the wontons in hot oil either—we had not one, but two orders of these last time out! Only new item we tried was the boneless spare ribs.They were thinly sliced, crispy (we asked for well-done) and served dry, rather than dripping in that sweet sauce. Oh, what gluttony! I’m going to upgrade their rating to 4.5 out of 5 stars. Always friendly service too! I’d be here weekly if it was closer.
Sichuan Cottage is located at 8 Main Street in Marlboro, NJ.
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