Madison has an enviable number of ethnic restaurants, and some good Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian dishes. But foodies have long been wailing about the lack of a good Chinese restaurant in town. The China Palace on North Sherman, seen by some to be a decent stab in the right direction, recently closed. Prior to that, many favored Temple Garden, which decamped for Lake Geneva some years ago.
I guess I've eaten so much mediocre Chinese food in Madison that I've forgotten what good Chinese food might taste like. When the Red Pepper on Stoughton Road closed a few years ago, I stopped ordering Chinese food almost entirely.
The Red Pepper often came in second or third place in the Madison's Favorites poll we run here at the paper every summer, invariably trailing Imperial Garden and trading runners-up honors with Hong Kong Cafe. I always found a number of dishes to like at the Red Pepper and since it was better than the other nearest alternative (China Wok on Fordem), it was "my favorite" without inspiring a lot of culinary enthusiasm. Nonetheless, I missed the Red Pepper after it closed and thought fondly of the large number of New Years' Eves where we had a late dinner there and watched them take down the Christmas decorations.
But, the Red Pepper has come to life again as Tom's Red Pepper, a takeout operation on the far west side -- it's in a strip mall that straddles the Madison/Middleton line on North Gammon Road, next to the suburban Nitty Gritty.
Tom was behind the counter much as he used to always be behind the cash register at the old restaurant. Sitting down at one of the two tables, we ordered hot and sour soup, kung bao four delight (the four being shrimp, scallops, chicken and beef, $13), and lemon chicken ($10).
The soup was a little thicker than I remembered, with less "stuff" -- less tofu, less pork, fewer mushrooms -- but then the soup at the old place did used to vary from visit to visit from great to passable. This was okay -- the balance of hot to sour was all right, but it fell short of being a truly enjoyable hot and sour.
The kung bao four delight was as I remembered it, with a spicy brown sauce almost glazed onto the four delights. I thought it used to have some vegetables with it, but not here --although the whole thing came on a bed of (cold) shredded cabbage. It was better than any kung bao dish I've had any place else recently, and, another plus, the scallops, which often taste like nothing in a dish like this, were tender and had discernable scallop taste.
The lemon chicken also came on a bed of shredded cabbage. The lemon sauce was thick and too sweet, and the chicken, while being nice slices of white meat instead of the battered and fused chicken that's often the base for those "sweet" chicken dishes, was tough and without a lot of flavor.
I would go back -- if in the neighborhood -- to revisit other old standbys like the comforting chicken with mushroom, any flavor of moo shu, the spicy garlic eggplant, and the ma pa tofu. But I'm not sure I'll be making a special trip. While it's great to see a better standard of takeout, Madison could still use a really good Chinese restaurant.