The Red Pepper review

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Red Pepper chicken vegetable soup

Red Pepper
38 Hamlyn Rd. Plaza
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 754-7600

When I was engaged to write a Dining Out column back in 2005, I remember then Telegram publisher, Miller Ayre, saying the following:

“We don’t want you just doing the fancy restaurants. Do the smaller, cheaper places too.”

“Personally,” he added, “I like the Red Pepper.”

He needn’t have worried. I wasn’t fool enough to think I could sustain a weekly St. John’s restaurant column without visiting every dining room, cafeteria, pub, chain, food court, take-out and greasy spoon within an hour’s drive of my house – especially in 2005.

Eventually, I even managed to visit the Red Pepper, but, only the one on Peet Street. That original review, minus the publication date, is still on display at the Red Pepper on Hamlyn Road, a restaurant I’d never written about. Still, they are sister restaurants, so, having my mostly positive review on the wall is understandable.

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Red Pepper, Hamlyn Road

Twelve years later I finally made it to the Red Pepper Mongolian Grill on Hamlyn Road. A fresh look at the Red Pepper franchise was called for, if only to give them something new to hang on the wall – or not.

It was incredibly windy and we had to wrestle with the door to get inside the Red Pepper on Hamlyn Road. After a quick greeting, the hostess made a perfunctory gesture toward the seating area with the message to sit wherever we wanted.

Tad dated
The restaurant seats about 100 at a variety of tables and booths. It looks a tad dated with its fuchsia coloured walls and loud floral print upholstery. I suspect it was on the verge of looking dated when the restaurant opened a decade ago. I hear pink is coming back this season, so perhaps the Red Pepper is about to catch a new fashion wave. It happened – God help us – for men’s pleated pants last year.

A buffet station on wagon wheels is parked conspicuously at the centre of the room, near the so-called Mongolian grill – which is just a griddle of the type found at any hamburger joint. A soup station, also near the grill, looked somewhat abandoned on our visit, save one lone active pot.

Hidden in a corner, next to a window, I saw a sort of pen with a multitude of living plants in pots of various description. This botanical menagerie appeared to be more for the private amusement of the owner, not to provide a pleasant distraction for dining guests.

Since we were never offered any kind of menu – I later found one on the restaurant’s website – we had no idea of what the establishment served in the way of beverages, appetizers, mains or dessert. Later, a sociable cook informed us that we were both entitled to a bowl of soup. Let’s begin there.

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Red Pepper chicken vegetable soup

The soup, called “chicken vegetable”, had, without doubt, the flavour profile of chicken and vegetables. Problem was, it appeared the chicken and vegetables were fished out of it, or gone AWOL, leaving a broth with rice that many would have been quite thankful to receive on a Great Depression era bread line.

Expected more
Having braved the elements and fought with a door determined to do battle, as if possessed by the spirit of Genghis Khan, I was expecting more than a soup consisting of broth, with only tiny fragments of vegetables and errant grains of rice. Frankly, we felt like we were consuming leftovers. The soup station didn’t even have dry crackers to go with the broth, let alone rolls.

Stir fry with beef and pork
Stir fry with beef and pork

Now for the Red Pepper’s raison d’être, the meal cooked at the Mongolian grill, or, as I call it, Flavour Takes a Holiday. The Red Pepper concept is simple enough. You select the meats, vegetables and noodles you want from a buffet of uncooked ingredients and take them to the grill where a cook fries them for you. You’re then given them back on a fresh plate, along with a small ramekin of whichever sauce you’ve chosen to perk it up. Sauces include: Mongolian hot, Mongolian sweet and sour, and teriyaki.

If there had been two raw buffets and one was marked, “For Display Only”, that’s the one from which I would have thought we’d accidently taken our food. Why? Because display food is often fake or imitation food, with no taste. The beef and pork had texture akin to meat, but it didn’t taste of anything. The chicken – the best of all – vaguely tasted of chicken.

By the way, you’ll need to take lots of the chicken because ours seemed to evaporate into almost nothing when cooked.

Flavour thief
The vegetables weren’t any better, as far as flavour goes. Seriously, even the yellow onion was robbed of most of its taste by the flavour thief. If it hadn’t been for those dark, thick sauces full of salt, spice and sugar – the kind that can put a taste on a cardboard beer mat – I don’t think the plateful of meat and vegetables would have amounted to much of anything.

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Stir fry with chicken

Based on this recent visit I think I’m safe in saying that the quality of the food at the Red Pepper restaurants has declined. And, consider this, twelve years ago, I paid $30 at the Red Pepper for a meal for two – which included dessert, two glasses of wine, tax and tip. This time, with no booze and no dessert, the same experience cost approximately $55. I don’t mind serving myself or waiting in line to have my food cooked. I used to find it fun, especially when the food was so reasonably priced.

Obviously, times change, what was novel becomes hackneyed, restaurant prices rise, but, one thing that should remain constant, at any eating establishment, is the quality of the food and service. I’ll gladly pay $55 for good quality food and service. Otherwise, I feel cheated, which is exactly how I felt when we left the Red Pepper on Hamlyn Road.

Rating No stars

Price Dinner for two with tea, tax and tip costs approximately $55.

Service Extremely basic table service

Ambiance Like the dated cafeteria of an inexpensive airport hotel.

Sound level Moderate.

Open Sunday: 12 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Reservations Walk-ins are welcome.

Credit cards All major.

Parking Strip mall’s parking lot.

Beverages As per the Red Pepper’s website, red or white house wine, domestic and imported beer, highballs, soft drinks, milk, coffee and various teas are available.

Best bets The soup – for flavour.

Wheelchair access Assistance is required at entrance. Restaurant and restrooms are accessible. Cubicle grab bars are quite rusty.

* Fair  * * Good  * * * Excellent  * * * * Exceptional