MSP Chowdown Report – Little Szechuan (long)
First – Happy Lunar New Year! This is the year of the pig, and before anyone begins to snicker let me share with you this description:
“Contrary to its rather negative reputation in the West, the Pig of Chinese Astrology may be the most generous and honorable Sign of the Zodiac. Pigs are nice to a fault and possess impeccable manners and taste. They have so much of the perfectionist in them that others may be inclined to perceive them as snobs, but this is a misconception. Pigs are simply possessed of a truly luxurious nature, one that delights in finery and riches (in surroundings, food, lovemaking and otherwise). This Sign believes in the best qualities of mankind and certainly doesn't consider itself to be superior. Pigs also care a great deal about friends and family and work hard to keep everyone in their life happy. Helping others is a true pleasure for the Pig, who feels best when everyone else is smiling.” (Source: iVillage, because wikipedia is just ubiquitous.)
The new moon was a most delicate crescent last night, sidling toward the western horizon with the evening star just beneath it. I got a peek at it in the parking lot on the way into the Little Szechuan, where sixteen diners gathered for a chowdown. Returning chowhounders included The Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, JeanMT, Danny, The Chowish Lurker, djohnson22, uisge, The Dairy King, Neitz and his companion-who-does-not-post. We welcomed some new chowdown participants and now have faces to go with names for bob s as well as katebauer, juliacarty and their companions-who-do-not-post.
Inside Little Szechuan, the number of occupied tables reminded us that Dara Moskowitz reviewed the place last week and her favorable comments sure can bring in the customers. Reservations turned out to be a really good idea ... we were promptly seated at the two largest round tables as the dining room filled up around us. Our wait staff worked hard to keep everyone happy – if not in their lives, at least at our tables.
If delighting in finery and riches can be interpreted as hoping to taste every single possibility on the Little Szechuan menu, the folks at my table rang in the New Year with full enthusiasm. Our appetizers included dan dan noodles, stir-fried cucumbers, cheng-du bobo chicken, and tongue slices in red chili sauce. For the main meal, we requested green beans in special sauce, ma po tofu, grilled lamb with scallion and crispy shrimp. There was no duck of any kind, nor eel, so we ordered squid with pickled vegetables, plus pork and vegetables in spicy sauce.
Let’s hear now from everyone who attended. What did you expect? What did you experience? What did you love? What did you regret? Table #2, what did you eat (besides the rabbit and our surplus dishes?)
This is where the reporting leaves off and the opinion starts up, so I’ll throw open the discussion on this note: the Pig must have felt best last night, because by the time we left everyone was smiling.
Really good choices: Thumbs-up for the shrimp as well as its accompanying steamed broccoli, the simple and flavorful lamb, the salt-sweet-char of the green beans, the bony but delicious bobo chicken, the tofu, the surprisingly good tongue. Others?
Less good choices: There was no problem with any one dish, but by the middle of the meal our plates were a pool of red chili oil. Rice came to the table midway through the meal – whether it was an accompaniment or a gesture of sympathy is still uncertain.
I say so because that pool made it harder and harder to tell the dish flavors apart. The sauce for the ma po tofu really was different from that for the pork, but by that time I could only recognize the fact, not appreciate the taste. Our table touched on a discussion about the different kinds of heat in food: strength vs. flavor dimension vs. the sweaty machismo in blowing off the top of your head.
Along the lines of a separate thread, nothing from that the third category made it to our table; how about yours?
We were also counting the serving platters pooling with chili oil on our table...(3 or 4, I think), as well as platters covered in char.
Though a chowdown is a wonderful way to explore the whole menu all at once, and it's certainly possible to share the dishes family style, I think the menu is best enjoyed in smaller groups of 2-4 people so you don't overdose on the chili. The accumulation of it over the course of a meal is a lot and so many of LS's best dishes are the ones with chili as a predominant spice/flavor.
We were talking about an Izzy's stop at our table. :) But, we were too full.
Two of my favorite dishes at LS are fish or duck dishes (not fish+duck together in one dish, though, thankfully). We had one of them, the fish and tofu in spicy sauce, at our table last night (and sent over to your table, along with our dan dan noodles and big sister rabbit, when we were about 3/4th done with it--I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to try it!)
The other dish I like a lot, though I've only had it once (not last night) is something called "beer broth duck" or something similar.
I recommend them both.
Aw, what a lovely post. And thank you so much for organizing. It was a lovely evening. With wonderful company. And, as is always the case with these chowdowns, you get to taste so many more things as a group than you ever could on your own.
I know someone at our table took notes on the dishes we ordered, so I will let that person post the list. Of the dishes I hadn't tried before that I tried at the chowdown, the stir-fried spicy cucumbers and the dan dan noodles --both appetizers-- and the squid with pickled vegetables(from the other table) were my favorites. The flavor of the pickled vegetables was a wonderful departure from the other dishes, most of which had chili oil in them.
Though perfectly competent, the dishes I don't think I'll need to order again now that I've tried them once: rabbit big sister style (also an appetizer) and the cheng-du bobo chicken (from the other table). I thought they were fine, but not as exceptional as some of the other dishes. Also, I didn't think the tongue slices in red chili sauce was all that interesting, though, I ate it cold (after the other table graciously shared), so, maybe it was better hot.
The fish and tofu in spicy sauce is still my overall favorite dish at Little Szechuan; the green beens in special sauce (though, they aren't at all saucy) is still on my list of favorites, along with a couple of others we didn't try last night, including the beer duck I mentioned above and the one of the shrimp dishes I tried and posted about previously that I can't remember the specific name of right now...not to be confused with the shrimp dish KTFoley mentions above, though, which is on my list to try next time...
Everyone at our table loved the bamboo shoots--I tried them just after the cucumbers and was so enamored of the cukes that I didn't get what all the fuss was over the bamboo shoots, so I will probably try those again.
We had a tofu dish at our table that I liked a lot too, though I don't recall the name. It was rectangles of tofu, crispy'ish on the outside, tender on the inside, stir fried with bell peppers.
The "spicy sauce" that accompanied the "pork and vegetables in spicy sauce" seems to be the same as the base for the fish and tofu in spicy broth. I think the latter is a better dish--the fish is just so tender. I understand there's a version of the dish in beef, too, that I'd like to try, just for comparison sake.
The service was better than it's ever been, but still not exceptional. They kept bringing the wrong dishes to the wrong tables--so, we must have had them very confused.
Wonderful evening. Thank you again.
Yes it was a wonderful evening. I sat at KTFoley's table.
I have to say that after awhile everything started tasting the same. Not that I'm complaining because it was all good, but I agree with TDQ that the spicy sauce was the same dish, in the tradition of Chinese restaurants everywhere, with either fish or pork depending on order. And it was better with the fish.
Also didn't care for the Bobo (can't remember spelling) chicken appetizer due to the neck-bone issue (a lot of gristle) but I've never been a big bone, or even chicken I guess, fan. I think that one might be more favored by people who grew up eating dishes that feature bones like that.
Spicy seemed to dominate which is great for me when I order my for-one meals there (uh, made up of three different dishes, with lots for leftover) but became kind of numbing, especially with the red-sauce puddle issue KT posted about. The two kinds of spice seemed to be that made up of ground sichuan peppercorns, as on the braised cucumbers, and the red oil, which is hot peppers steeped in hot oil, as discussed last night. Both were great, but became a little one-notey in bulk.
The blander dishes didn't do it for me as much as I'd expected. Didn't really care for the squid, as it was kind of squid and vinegary and not much more to me, though I loved picking out the pickled vegetables. Oh wait, that shrimp in a sauce I learned was mayo and mustard and sugar was wonderful, though that sauce, was mixed with the hot pepper sauce on my plate, was a little much. Too gloppy and sweet other than on the shrimp. When used for dipping kinda gross. If all this makes sense. I'm just tossing stuff off.
Anyway I'd almost say my favorite dish as the fish and tofu in spicy broth from the next table. Oh, oh and the moa something tofu? Essentially tofu in a DIFFERENT spicy broth, including fermented black beans, was great.