Best of Chinatown: Chili Chili has authentic Chinese food with a spicy kick

Photos: Grace Geisbrecht

Chili Chili is a little bit tricky to find, but absolutely worth it once you do: tucked under street level, it is, quite literally, a hidden gem of Ottawa’s Chinatown. With a menu full of spicy, delicious options from the humid southwest of China, Chili Chili’s doesn’t fit the mold of westernized Chinese food and instead serves great, authentic choices.

Their large dining room is currently closed due to pandemic restrictions, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing this stand-out option by taking a few dishes to go for dinner some night soon.

When I visited, the options on the menu were mostly unfamiliar to me: it was quickly apparent that this was not the standard Chinese food I grew up eating in the northern small town where I was raised. Though the menu catered towards guests who recognized the names and styles of dishes, the staff was more than happy to help me pick out something that I would enjoy and described the options available.

She explained that it was important in this cuisine to serve “whole food,” and noted that the fish would come whole, and that prawns would come with their shells on. Chili Chili also serves beef, chicken, and pork and has an extraordinary wealth of vegetarian options.

I took home one of their most popular options: the “hot pot” stir fry where you can choose your spiciness level, then mix and match with different elements to your liking, including a broad assortment of different vegetable and protein options divided by cost per element (between $3.99 and $5.99 per option) which could be very reasonable depending on your preferences.

Wanting to try as many elements as possible, I chose the medium spicy version with chicken, enoki mushrooms, rice cakes, tofu puffs, and cauliflower. I have to recommend the tofu puffs: even die hard carnivores would be amazed by the squishy, puffy, saucy bites (the texture is reminiscent of scrambled eggs, but airier.) I would also recommend the rice cakes and enoki mushrooms for the variety of chewy textures they provide to the dish and their ability to soak up the extraordinarily flavourful, house-made chilli sauce. (Unfortunately, on the bike ride home, the take-out containers got shaken up so that the contents were no longer photogenic.

Though the chilli sauce was delicious, I would warn that a medium-spicy dish was nearly too hot for me to really enjoy. I would absolutely recommend medium spice (or higher) to someone with a higher tolerance than myself (which, if I am being honest, is rather low), but when I go back I will order a milder version.

Chili Chili’s dining room, though below ground, is full of pop-art style murals and plants that provide a friendly, interesting feeling to the room. I look forward to returning for dine in some day soon.

Chili Chili’s is a great option for super-spicy, tasty Chinese takeout that doesn’t hold to westernized standards and truly stands out. I highly recommend the spicy, customizable hot pot stir fry to try something new for dinner sometime soon.