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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.

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  1. 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?

    1. 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?

      1 Reply
      1. re: KTFoley

        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.


      2. Choices for next time: A duck. A fish. More vegetables. A special, translated or not. A sauce that does not have the words “red,” “spicy” or “chili” in its name. A stop-off at Izzy’s for dessert.

        What would you try?

        1 Reply
        1. re: KTFoley

          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.


        2. 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.


          1. 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.

            1. I was the one who wrote out our order so let's see if I remember:

              Dan dan noodles
              Bamboo Shoots
              Rabbit big sister style

              Fish filet in spicy broth
              Szechuan tofu
              Green beans
              Short ribs

              I really enjoyed last night. I agree with TDQ that it reinforced our favorites, rather than exposing us to other great stuff. I love the bamboo, with the cucumbers a close second. All our entrees were fantastic although next time I don't need the green beans, especially since in their fried state they don't count much for veggies. I was happy to get a few bites of the Ma Po Tofu - I really like it at LS and do think that it has a different flavor than the "spicy broth" dishes, it's smokier some how. Although there was a lot of bone, I liked the short ribs because they were a different flavor than most of the other dishes. I could definitely do without the rabbit again, and the dan dan noodles are soothing, although not extremely exciting to me.

              2 Replies
              1. re: katebauer

                Yay! There you are with the list. Thank you for keeping track of it and posting it for us! I think it's the "szechuan tofu" l liked that had the rectangles of tofu. Sadly, I don't remember trying the Ma Po Tofu, so, will have to put that on my list to try on my next visit. I agree with you that it's nice to have a "smoky" dish, or any dish with an alternative flavor (such as the dan dan noodles) on the table.

                I forgot about the ribs--I t hought they were just okay as ribs go, though-- again, I agree with your point that it's nice to have an alternative flavor to the chili dishes.


                1. re: katebauer

                  >> I could definitely do without the rabbit again

                  I'd like to hear more about the rabbit and why it wasn't a favorite. My life goal is to try every dish on the LS menu, but if there are some real duds, I'll skip 'em.


                  P.S. Great reports, all - thanks for posting them!

                2. The two major things with the rabbit were the quantity of bones and the dryness. Eating it was like a mine field, you always had to be careful of bones. The meat seemed really dry and all I noticed was that texture, not the flavor.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: katebauer

                    Yes, that was my issue with the rabbit too. Bone to meat ratio was a bit too high, and it did seem pretty dry - I had been trying to pinpoint why exactly I thught it was kind of ho-hum.

                    I have never been particularly keen on tofu, but I did really like the Szechuan tofu.

                    The cucumbers I thought were really tasty, a nice clean refreshing taste - these would be good for a sort of mid-meal break to cut through the accumulation of chili...

                    I loved the green beans and could have eaten them all night - but then I just really like green beans in general so it wasn't particularly that there was anything especially extra-ordinary about them.

                    I liked the ribs, but again they were not particularly extraordinary.

                  2. Thanks again KTFoley for organizing the chowdown. I'm looking forward to the next one.

                    This was my first visit to LS, so I didn't have the "problem" of repeats. I sat at KT's table, so I did not have a chance to try either the bamboo shoots or the short ribs. I did get tastes of the rabbit, the fish in spicy broth, or the short ribs, thanks to the generosity of the other table.

                    Here are my thoughts --- I'll try not to repeat too much of what was said above.

                    1) I liked all the appetizers that I tried, but my favorites were the cucumbers, the tongue and the rabbit. The cukes were great for the novelty. I'm not usually a fan of tongue -- I don't like the texture and it often tastes a little off -- but I thought that this tongue was pretty good. The cut, texture and flavor of the tongue was almost bacon-y to me. I thought that the rabbit had a much "rounder" flavor to it than most of the other spicy appetizers.

                    2) I agree with TDQ that the fish & tofu in spicy broth was better than the pork and vegetables.

                    3) I'd like to try another dish with the pickled vegetables. I enjoyed the vinegary flavor from the squid and think that it might meld better with something besides the squid (which doesn't absorb flavors very well).

                    4) The green beans were delicious. As a quick pointer - I'd let folks know that they reminded me of a similar dish from Rainbow Chinese on Nicollet -- Dry Sauteed Green Beans. I can't tell you whether the LS version is better because it's been a while since I've had Rainbow's.

                    5) The texture of the tofu in all of the dishes was better than many of the other restaurants in town. I wonder if there are a lot of suppliers.

                    6) The shrimp was a guilty pleasure. It was delicious, but it seemed a little westernized in flavor. It was a great change of pace, though, and I'd definitely order it again.

                    7) In the "that's what makes horse races" category, I enjoyed the food but I don't think I'd make LS a destination restaurant. If I was going to meet folks in St. Paul -- particularly a group, it would definitely be on my list of recommendations. Perhaps it's the distance from SW Minneapolis, but it's unlikely that I'd go there just to go. I'm sure I'll be back sometime though.

                    8) Even though the food was great, the Chowdown experience definitely made it better. It was great to put faces behind names and to eat with an adventurous group. Also, I enjoyed having the chance to explore the whole menu at once! I'm looking forward to the next get together.

                    Thanks again for the great evening.
                    Bob S.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: bob s

                      All good points, Bob. I'm so needing to try the shrimp next time! RE: your point #3, were there OTHER dishes with the pickled vegetables? How intriguing! It was the veggies, not the calamari that made such an impression, so it might be worth exploring the non-calamari dishes.


                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                        I didn't notice whether there were any other dishes with pickled vegetables. To be honest, I didn't get a good look at the menu -- I just went along for the ride.


                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          I think I remember seeing a beef with pickled vegetables option. I wanted to try it but my husband wanted something else.

                      2. Hey Chowhounds- great to be able to join you all at LS! We've read most of the thread above and wecan basically agree with most of it. Loved the:

                        toungue (in red spicy sauce)
                        fish and tofu (from the other table)(in red spice sauce)
                        pord in red spicy sauce (in guess what)
                        the squid with pickled vegies
                        Ma Po To Fu (in a different red spicy sauce)

                        some had too many little bones- a little more care can get rid of them.
                        Too bad they were out of duck and eel!
                        Too bad the wait staff did not step in and say "too much red spicy sauce!"
                        Too bad we did not get the rice in time to mop up that red spicy sauce.

                        And, it sure was nice to get the green beans (not in red spicy sauce!)

                        Even with all that red spicy sauce I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and look forward to another.

                        Oh yes- the mayo shrimp! with the broccoli..... yum.

                        Chinese politness does not allow one to step in with advice unless asked- I guess we should have told the wait staff that we were going to try lots of dishes and that we would appreciate their active advice about getting a varied selection of sauces and tastes... and a lack of little bones.


                        1. PS from JuliaCarty-

                          regarding the "westernized" shrimp with Mayo-- the first time we ever had shrimp or anything with "mayo sauce" was in China 2 years ago- China has a habit of taking things from other cultures and making it their own.... Mayo as the main ingrediant of a sauce! how audacious!! juliacarty

                          1. Looking at the menu online ( http://www.littleszechuan.com/dinner/ ), here's a few notes about table #2 (or as I prefer to call us - the other table #1) The fish and Tofu Dish was #31, "Fish Fillet & Tofu cooked with Spicy Tasty Broth" The Tofu Dish was #150, "Szechuan Spicy Tofu."

                            One difference between our table and the other table was how we ordered - we ordered everything at once, and all of the food (appetizers and main dishes) arrived at pretty much the same time. That seemed to provide us a bit more variety in sauces and textures. The other table ordered appetizers, and then ordered main dishes around the time the appetizers were arriving.