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Chowdown at Little Sichuan Express -- Report

  • r

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.

We ordered:

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
tea-smoked duck

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)

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  1. 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.

    1. Thumbs up on Little Sichuan Express! Will post more later, gotta dash now.

      Image: http://static.flickr.com/32/45529336_...

      1. I'm bummed I couldn't join you guys to offer a bit of menu reading and translation. I've gone there a few times for lunch and every time have had to help the staff translate for another customer.
        BUT... their food is much better than the paper plating would suggest.

        2 Replies
        1. re: vliang

          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.

          1. 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.

            Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            Image: http://static.flickr.com/24/45529326_...

        2. Is this place associated with same in San Mateo 3rd ave? If so, does the SM branch serve the same food that you ordered here? I've eaten there but don't recall any ma-la food.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Gingerman

            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.

            Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            Image: http://static.flickr.com/33/45529335_...

          2. The shoe string potatoes looks wick yummy!

            2 Replies
            1. re: theSauce

              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!

              1. 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.

                Image: http://static.flickr.com/27/45529332_...

            2. I;m glad you liked this place, I've been singing it's praises for years. I used to live in Union city and ate here at least once a week. While I couldn't read the postings on the wall, once they got to know me, I'd ask them to pick one of the specials they'd think I'd like, endedup with a 70% hit rate.

              I agree with the chili chicken rec, a better and more incendiary choice is the spicy dry fried chicken wings, equal parts red pepper, garlic, and chicken wing pieces. This stuff is probably the hottest and tastiest thing on the menu.

              You also missed the cold noodles, cumin lamb and a great rendition of twice cooked pork.


              1. I'm sad to find out this place is Closed, Fremont location.

                Called & they are now by the Newark 99 Ranch: 35233 Newark Blvd

                9 Replies
                1. re: hhc

                  Yes, they've moved into the old location of Su Jia (Da Sichuan / Big Sichuan). So Su Jia is no more. They've also raised their prices as well.

                  1. re: tanspace

                    Are they still using styrofoam plates?

                    1. re: DezzerSF

                      You took the words right out of my mouth. (vbg)

                      Is there still a steam table express set up?

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Little Sichuan Express got a facelift. They dropped the "Express" from the name as well as the steam table offerings. I noticed proper plates when I picked up my takeout tonight. The good news is that the waitstaff is the same and so is the food.

                        I ordered my two favorite dishes, Dan Dan Mien and Cumin Lamb (labeled as Xing Jiang Stir Fried Roasted Lamb (with Cumin Powder)) and they were as good as before.

                        The prices seemed the same to me (at least for what I ordered), but some of the fish dishes on the new takeout menu had their prices crossed out and rewritten with higher prices. However, prices on a spare rib dish and dumpling dish were reduced. The menu in general seems to have gotten larger including some generic dishes, and they now offer family dinners. On weekends, they do the sweet or savory soy milk and chinese doughnut brunches.

                        The restaurant was quite busy tonight, but there were a few tables still available. At the old location, it would have been a packed house, with people waiting for a table.

                        Hours are M-Th 11am-9:30pm, F-Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 11am-9pm.

                        1. re: DezzerSF

                          Thanks a bunch for the report! I liked Su Gia, but the cooks at Little Sichuan Express are a step up. I'm glad they'll have a bigger venue to show what they can do. I preferred LSE to the mothership in San Mateo.

                          Little Sichuan
                          168 E 4th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94401

                          Little Sichuan Express - CLOSED, moved to Newark
                          34420 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA

                          Little Sichuan
                          35233 Newark Blvd Ste F, Newark, CA 94560

                          1. re: DezzerSF

                            I went back for the weekend brunch, and they had the complimentary soy milk on a table, with sugar on the side. My SO was craving for the savory soy milk (which you have to order), but she didn't think it was as good as the version we had at Queen's House in Mountain View. Anyway, it's a Taiwanese thing, right? On the other hand, the chinese doughnut was fried very nicely, light and crisp, and not oily at all.

                            I ordered another of my favorite dishes, the Dry Sauteed Spicy Chicken Wings. This dish was very spicy, with all the peppers, peppercorns, and chili oil. The proper plates helped the wings absorb more of the chili oil, and there was a definite ma la, addictive numbing spiciness. The dish was the same or better than the previous location so the kitchen has passed my test.

                            Go, please enjoy Little Sichuan, in a nicer setting to boot!

                            1. re: DezzerSF

                              Has this place changed hands recently? I stopped in last night on the way home for take out, the menu has changed slightly and I saw none of the old waitresses that used to work there.

                              The place was slammed and they were quoting 20+ minutes for takeout (looking around I suspected it would be longer) so I skipped out.

                  2. Made my first visit to the restaurant today, though I've been fed takeout from there before. No idea about ownership changes, but today's dinner was an excellent homestyle meal. The natural language of service was Mandarin but enough English was spoken for me to participate in ordering.

                    - Fish head and soft tofu soup: the only non-hot dish. Pleasing fishiness in the broth, while the tofu didn't seem to be very flavour-absorbent.
                    - Sauteed liver and kidney (and black fungus): dish of the night for me. A really fun mix of textures, with enough chili oil to keep you on your toes. Organ meats were closer to the "more cooked" end than the "less cooked" end of my acceptable range of doneness.
                    - Chongqing chicken wings: incendiary, and so the only dish our mildly chiliheaded table didn't finish. Still, better than the version of this I had at China Village, though I don't know how many chef changes ago that was. Only a touch of peppercorn; a lot more would be better, but I say that about most places around here. Looking forward to seeing how the leftovers hold up tomorrow.
                    - Xinjiang cumin lamb: I'm always satisfied by this dish. Above average out of the versions of this dish I've had; comparatively spicy with firm meat.
                    - Beijing eggplant: not bad but my least favourite dish, just a tad goopy, and the chunks of tomato didn't work for me. Not too spicy, others liked it a lot more than I did.

                    1. The "little eel" you ate maybe 鱔魚 (Shan Yu), Asian Swamp Eel. They are very common in Asia. Can be prepared various ways and cut different ways.