Chowdown at Little Sichuan Express -- Report
- Ruth Lafler
Melanie, Caitlin and I were the only people who could make it on such short notice, but we were all hungry, and our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, and we ended up ordering enough food to easily feed six (we each went home with four containers of leftovers). The sacrifices we make so our fellow hounds will get a good survey of a restaurant!
This restaurant is semi-service: you can order at the counter, or they bring you a check-off menu sheet at the table. The menu is divided into several catergories: cold plates, mien & rice, soup "spicy food", "home style dishes", and vegetables/vegetarian.
Cold Plates: spicy combination; spicy pon pon chicken
Mien/Rice: spicy won ton w/hot oil sauce
Soup: Sour Cabbage with fish fillet
Spicy Food: home style boiled eel; spicy chili chicken (?)
Vegetable: stir potato strips; eggplant with garlic ginger sauce
There's another menu (isn't there always?), and although they originally gave us a Chinese-only version, they eventually dug up a copy in English. From that we ordered:
kaiyung snake gourd
There are also specials on Chinese on the wall, but the staff speaks almost no English, so after having had little luck getting them to translate the Chinese menu, we didn't even try with the wall specials. Besides, did I mention we ordered enough food for six people?
Verdict: the food was much better and more complex than one would expect from the bare-bones nature of this operation (all the food is served and eaten from paper plates with styrofoam teacups, plastic spoons and disposable chopsticks -- the only exception was the soup and eel, which both came in large stoneware bowls). There was much chili oil in evidence, and the ma-la in some dishes gave proof of generous use of Sichuan peppercorns. In particular, I thought the spicy combination (thin-sliced tripe and beef) was very good, the potato strips were the best version I've had, the pon pon chicken was also deliciously spicy, the soup was more delicate but nicely sour from the cabbage, and the tea-smoked duck had a wonderful smoky flavor, although it was a bit dry. I also liked the eggplant, but then I always like Chinese eggplant. The kaiyung snake gourd turned out to be winter melon, cut into tile-shaped pieces, cooked until just al dente and with a mild sauce faintly tasting of dried shrimp -- delicate and refreshing.
The eel was a bit of a surprise -- I think we were expecting large eel cut into chunks, but instead, we got a bowl heaped with what at first appeared to be green beans but which were in fact miniature eel filets. There was a nice sheen of chili oil floating on top, and lots of crushed chiles for good measure. In spite of that, it wasn't unbearably hot. Initially I found the little eel filets to be a bit of a turn off, but once I managed to get past that, they were delicious, with layers of chile flavors and a mild afterglow.
Just in case we were still hungry (although they looked rather alarmed at the huge amounts of food we had leftover), they brought us a small plate of house-made Sichuan pickles, which were very good.
In short, I think the only dishes I wouldn't order again were the chili chicken (if that's what it was), which had dark, sticky-sweetish sauce, and the wontons in hot oil, which were not nearly as good as other versions I've had.
Enough food for six people (or maybe more!) came to $62 including tax.
Little Sichuan Express
34420-G Fremont Blvd. (in the 99Ranch Shopping Center -- it's easy to miss, both Melanie and I walked past it the first time)
Sounds good, wish I could have come (already had other plans). If when I have time I will try to stop by and check out the wall menu. Maybe another time Ruth.
Yeah, the food is definitely two- or in some cases even three-star food: someone in the kitchen knows his spices. The atmosphere is one-star (or less). We were speculating that perhaps they couldn't afford a dishwasher.
Service was friendly but perfunctory -- a couple of times I just got up and helped myself to extra cutlery and cups from the service area. We did appreciate that they left a pitcher of water on the table for us.
re: Ruth Lafler
Here's the shot of the bonbon chicken and the spicy combination. Sorry, I messed up and ordered the spicy combination (aka husband & wife lung slices) instead of the blessed pork with garlic sauce. BUT, I will say that when this came out at the first dish and I could smell the fruity/floral Sichuan peppercorns while it was still across the table from me, I knew we were in for a good meal of authentic tastes. The leftovers went to my brother. Even though he'd had dinner already, after one taste, he kept going back to the take-out container sitting on the kitchen counter for just one more bite. The blend of spicing is that addictive, and the tripe pieces were so nice and tender. The cold bonbon chicken was also good, made with white breast meat but with a velvety texture.
Those plastic/paper plates were somewhat clumsy. When I was trying to pass the bonbon chicken, heavy from the weight of the pool of sauce, the rim of the small plastic plate cracked and I thought we'd have a sauce spill all over the table. The portions were quite generous with the flimsy plates filled to overflowing. At the end of the evening, our waitress climbed into the garbage can that was behind you to stomp on the plates trying to compress the trash.
The San Mateo branch is a larger place with a more extensive menu. It's been a couple years since I've been there (one post linked below). At that time, the Sichuan specialties were in a separate section of the English menu. The last time I was there, my dan dan mien didn't have any ma-la from Sichuan peppercorns. This was in the middle of the ban and while other restaurants managed to find alternative sources, I guess Little Sichuan didn't. It made me doubly happy to experience the numbing heat at this recent dinner.
Here's the picture of the water-boiled eels. As Ruth mentioned, the slim eel filets looked like green beans. (g) Note the dusting of extra chili flakes and Sichuan peppercorns over the top for good measure. This prep is also available made with beef, chicken, or fish.
They really were -- there are two versions on the menu: plain and spicy. At China Village, the potatoes are tossed with some sliced jalapenos, so maybe that's the difference. Since we were ordering plenty fo spicy dishes, we got the plain version, which was cooked perfectly to my taste: al dente, but without any raw potato starchiness. And when they landed on my plate in a puddle of sauce from one of the spicy dishes (you can see my plate at 1 o'clock in Melanie's picture), they tasted pretty good that way, too!
re: Ruth Lafler
I always like to order this simple saute' of potatoes when I see it just for that reason, to provide a foil for the hot spicing. I thought this was the best version I've had too with just a bit of tart acidity to pop out the flavors, perfect salting, wok breath, and on point texture. Su Gia in Newark has this dish also but I didn't order it.
Here's the picture of the smoked duck. Quite a generous serving for $7.95. I agree that it had very good flavor but was a little too dry on the non-breast pieces. Maybe would have been better at lunch time than dinner hour.