Restaurant review: Spicy Hop

G.A. Benton

What's a good name for a new restaurant that sometimes cooks food so spicy it can provoke a suddenly bug-eyed diner to excitedly hop up from the table? If you answered, “Spicy Hop,” you might know about a cafeteria-style eatery that features flavor-bomb Sichuan dishes.

Located on Bethel Road where the defunct Aoi Sushi Bar once was, Spicy Hop is a spare, no-frills operation that's bright, modern and tidy. Its gray-and-white walls — on which the establishment's name is written with a depiction of a red chile pepper serving as the bar on the “H” — enclose comfortable patio-style chairs and simple wooden tables adorned with plastic succulent plants. The rear of the restaurant is where orders are placed, and the Spicy Hop adventure really begins.

Actually, ordering is a bit of an adventure. In lieu of a menu with costs and food descriptions, Spicy Hop's main pricing structure is spelled out above the counter: Diners pay $9.49 for two somewhat small servings of selected dishes or (my recommendation) $12.99 for three dishes; each of these options is accompanied by steamed white rice or brown rice. Keep an eye out for signs announcing daily specials and soups, and expect to pay about $5 for extra dishes.

Most core dish selections are made from already cooked stir-fries hidden under the lids of metal pots, which rest atop temperature-controlled electric heating surfaces. So be prepared to ask for a gander at any titles that pique your interest. (Dish titles appear on cards attached to the transparent barrier servers stand behind.) One more twist: Dish selections are generally scooped into separate aluminum containers that are placed — and presented to diner — in the kind of boxes usually reserved for pizzas.

Not all of Spicy Hop's homey Chinese fare is incendiary. Among milder items I sampled, the Beef Soup ($1.49) was as good as it was simple: tender stew chunks in a light-but-flavorful broth livened by cilantro and scallions. For a swine dish that won't singe your mouth, the flavorful Sweet-and-Sour Ribs outscore the Crispy Honey Pork — fried batter wads offering plenty of sweetness but little meat.

The pleasant, bright green Garlic Broccoli tastes pretty much how it sounds. Both the Tofu Salad (creamy chilled cubes in a sesame-oil-based dressing) and the Tomato and Eggs (large scrambled curds in a light, sweet-and-tart tomato sauce) taste better than they sound, and function as good palate coolers after heating up on Spicy Hop's scorching fare.

Speaking of the chile-laden devils, eating the delicious-but-dangerous duo of Sichuan Minced Chicken (with garlic, greens and Sichuan peppercorns) and Hunan Belly (fatty meat with enticing acidic accents) as part of the same meal propelled me into a coughing fit and what might be called a psychoactive reaction. I'm not saying I wouldn't eat them again, though.

I'd definitely eat the less-fiery Spicy Hop Chicken again (tender dark meat in a tongue-tingling sauce with chilies, Sichuan peppercorns and star anise). The Black Pepper Beef — sliced meat, garlic and sweet onions in a sauce saturated with black pepper — tastes quite good but offered tender beef on one occasion, chewy meat during another meal.

Overcooked proteins also marred the chile-ignited Pickled Chicken Gizzards, so I poured its delectable sauce on my brown rice. This wouldn't have worked so well on a previous visit, because the restaurant was out of brown rice then — expect it to be out of various advertised items — and half of my large pile of substituted white rice was gummy.

Such inconsistencies aren't uncommon here. But neither is compelling Chinese fare designed for diners who don't require virtual training wheels.

878 Bethel Rd, Northwest Side


Spicy Hop