A Survey of Classic Sichuan
As I live only a couple of miles away, I've made several visits to Classic Sichuan in Millbrae, the reincarnation of the old Little Sichuan in SM. They seem to be doing quite well - busier for lunch than dinner, with a clientele I would guess is 80% Asian. They've done a nice job with the old Kwong's space, making it attractive and bright. Service has generally been good, if occasionally slow or brusque. The owner/manager (Anita, I believe, who I remember from LS) often stops by to chat.
Enough of that, on to the food...
Spicy Boiled Beef. For me, one of the true pillars of Szechwan cuisine. Here it's properly intimidating, served in its massive bowl and swimming in red oil. The beef is good quality flank steak, tender and flavorful, interspersed with cabbage and onions. It's not quite as good or as potent as China Village's version, but packs a real whallop. Steamed rice is a definite necessity for me with this dish.
Herbal Chicken Soup. Served in its kawaii little mini-tureen, the broth is incredibly rich and deep. Tiny pieces of bone-in chicken are mixed with potato(?), but the star here is the stock. It's a truly satisfying starter - not at all spicy, but rich and complex.
Xing Jiang Stir-fried Roasted Lamb. One of the best versions I've tried. It's not overpowered by the cumin, which is balanced by ample jalapeno, ma la peppercorns and dried red peppers - not to mention fragrant roasted garlic and sweet onions and red bells. This is gutsy, high-quality Chinese cooking - amply spicy (which this dish sometimes isn't) boldly seasoned and subtle at the same time. The lamb is dry, but it should be in this dish - it's not at all tough and the high-heat cooking intensifies the rich flavor of the meat. This is an exotic dish, a mix of the flavors of China and the middle east, and it's a real sensory experience.
Not so "hot":
I tried a few items off the regular menu, just for informational purposes. While they're competently prepared, clearly the Sichuan menu is the way to go here.
Sichuan Beef Stew. This was one item off the specials menu that disappointed me. The meat was high-quality for the context, but I found the dish underseasoned and a little bland. Again, the China Village version seems to be the way to go here.
On balance, I prefer Classic to Little Sichuan - though perhaps only because it's so much more accessible for me. It's a nicer space, IMO. I should mention that there is no Chinese-only menu here (well, a few items on the main menu) - it's easy to order even for a gringo, though you have to be specific as many items have very similar names. I think they must recognize me now, as they've stopped trying so hard to dissuade me from ordering the boiled beef! If you get a chance, stop by - I don't think there's a comparably good Szechwan place anywhere on the North Peninsula.
Really great post and informative since I don't know a lot about Sichuan. I'm hungry now for all those dishes. I like knowing what to look for to get the best appreciation from those dishes.
Great to have a Milbrae dweller reporting. Looking forward to other posts from you on other area restaurants.
Just curious what are you Sichuan favs in other areas of the Bay Area.
It's a short list, at least for me - maybe Melanie or someone more knowledgeable could give a better answer. I certainly think China Village in Albany is the best, but I don't get out there too often. Z & Y Garden (the old Sam Lok) in Chinatown was very good the couple of times I've been there since I discovered it (thanks to this board) - they serve a combo of Szechwan and Yunnan dishes. And then there's Spices I and II (and III now, in Oakland) which I'll profess not to know well enough to judge, though they seem to have lots of fans here. I need to get down there a few times and check them out.
That neighborhood is in transition. Some older articles I found mention that it was once a Maltese neighborhood, today it's becoming a new Chinatown in the City. I enjoyed an afternoon walking around there, grabbing some lunch after shopping at the nearby Alemany farmers market in the morning. That's how I stumbled on Zone 88. Quite a few bakeries, tea shops, barbecue stands, and noodle joints.
Two friends and I just went for dinner. We ordered:
* Chongqing dry-cooked chicken pieces: A large plate of dried chilies and Sichuan peppers arrived, interspersed with occasional nuggets of dry-fried chicken on the bone. If one avoided eating the chilies directly, this nuggets weren't that flavorful -- I thought that the versions at South Legend in Milpitas and Zone 88 in SF were better. I rated this dish was so-so but my fiance really liked it.
* Fish fillets in spicy broth: I'm not sure of the exact name of this dish on the menu but a nearby table ordered it and so we asked for the same. Tender fillets of white fish were cooked/poached in a mildly spicy / oily broth, with mung beans. This dish was also not very spicy but the broth had the wonderful flavor of the sichuan peppers. I wish they had floated spicy oil on top for more of a kick, but it was still my favorite dish of the evening.
* On choy with garlic: Although it arrived looking overcooked, it still retained a nice texture and flavor. The stalks were trimmed to about 2-in lengths which made eating them a bit easier.
Total for the meal, including tax and tip and a beer, was $45. Overall, I was surprised that the dishes were relatively mild in flavor (assuming one avoided the chilies for the most part) since usually my mouth would be burning regardless.
On the way out I chatted with the lady at the front desk, who recognized me from frequenting Little Sichuan in San Mateo over the years (but not so frequently the past few due to working out of the area). She mentioned that the San Mateo location was sold, and that everyone at Little Sichuan (chefs, waiters, etc.) were now all at Classic Sichuan. I'm bummed that my favorite Sichuan restaurant in the Bay Area is now further away, but I'll continue to visit Classic Sichuan as my go-to restaurant in Millbrae. I was also surprised that many of the items on the Classic Sichuan menu were not ones I recognized from Little Sichuan, but my friend who has gone occasionally to the Fremont Little Sichuan Express location (which I've never visited) said were on the menu there.
Thanks for your post. I'm wondering whether anyone has been back to Little Sichuan in San Mateo since Classic opened to see how it's faring. I've been back to Little Sichuan Express in Fremont and it seemed much the same to me. Here's my post comparing dandan mian at LSE with Classic Sichuan.