Chowdown Report: Little Sichuan
Six hungry hounds gathered on a warm night for some hot food at Little Sichuan in San Mateo. We ordered the dinner for six at $88 and added a few dishes to make sure we completely overwhelmed ourselves in terms of volume.
Overall, it was a fine meal with some huge hits and some big misses as well.
Here’s what we had:
Spicy Jelly Fish – easily a highlight. It’s all about texture with jellyfish and this was bright and springy, with a great spicy sauce full of Szechuan peppercorns. Sublime.
Cold Spiced Beef – thin slices of beef shank cooked with five-spice. Looked a bit lonely on the plate. Needed something....
Young Bamboo with Sweet Red Peppers – fresh-tasting but ultimately lost in the chili storm
Smoked Pressed Tofu Strips – standard smoked tofu but the sauce was delicious
Spicy Szechuan Cold Noodles – tasted fresh, the texture was right but I think others liked this more
Szechuan Salty Pickle Fish Soup – Excellent. A wonderful sour/salty flavor made this stand out. The fish chunks started to break up and thickened the soup. Would order this again.
Kung Pao Chicken – unremarkable. Not hot, not really flavorful. Avoid.
Dong Po Pork – yes!! This was a whole pork trotter served on the bone in a wonderful anise broth. Loved this. The broth was more pungent than previous Shanghai version I’ve had and it served as a nice break from all of the chilis.
Sizzling Rice Dried Squid – for me the worst dish of the night. The squid was cut oddly and tasted a bit dated. A plain, boring brown sauce. Avoid.
Spicy Shredded “Fish Flavored” Pork – this got better as I ate more. Very vinegary, in fact vinegar was all I tasted when it was piping hot. As it cooled down it came into balance.
Whole Fish in Spicy Bean Curd Sauce – this was only ok for me and didn’t stand out from other similar dishes I’ve had.
Steamed Powdery Tender Beef – I really wanted to like this more than I did. The beef wasn’t close to tender and my pieces had more bone than beef. The “powder” treatment was interesting texturally but couldn’t make up for the tired beef chunks.
Xin Jiang Stir-Fried Roasted Lamb with Cumin Powder – oh my god! This was a revelation and maybe the best Chinese dish of any variety I’ve had all year. Garlic, peppers, onions, and chilis all roasted down to an almost a hash-like consistency, tender lamb slices and a heavy shot of cumin. Eyes closed you may have thought it was a Mexican preparation. Wouldn’t be bad with fresh tortillas. Not a bit gritty despite all of the powder. Couldn’t stop eating this. Inspired.
Spicy Boiled Tender Beef – not good at all. How could they blow such a classic dish? One-dimensional – just heat. Tasted like beef plunked down into a thin spicy broth. No sautéed garlic. Oh, the disappointment.
For dessert – mochi filled with read bean paste and oranges
All of the above plus a round of beers, rice, tax, and tip came to $24/pp. – a tremendous value.
Thanks to Melanie for organizing and, as usual, it was a pleasure to dine with my fellow hounds.
Thanks for a most enjoyable evening of spicy food and chow talk, especially to ChewChew, my co-host! My apologies for posting so late, but better late than never, so here goes.
Little Sichuan’s rep seems to have sunk in recent years as other options for authentic Sichuan-style cuisine have proliferated, especially after the opening of Classic Sichuan in Millbrae. I’ll confess that I had some trepidation about picking it for a chowdown dinner. But Pekoe Peony’s recent mention that she had her rehearsal dinner here gave me the impetus to go ahead. And, I’m glad we did. This was the first spot in the Bay Area that I felt delivered some authenticity and it was a pleasure to return and find it doing well. It was fun to look at my old post from March 2001,
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/16477#46668 , and taste and compare the same dishes today. I also pulled up the report of the chowdown at the Fremont location, Little Sichuan Express (now relocated to Newark) in Sept 2005 for another point of comparison, http://www.chowhound.com/topics/39806
Following Pekoe Peony’s tip about the dinner sets here, we found that the set menus included most of the greatest hits. Here’s the one we chose, then we added a few more dishes for good measure.
Link to photo of set menu with Chinese characters -
A few photos to share:
The small plate appetizers were the kitchen’s choice. I liked all four and the cold appetizers seem to be a particular strength here. I especially liked the spicy jellyfish salad and cold beef shank shown here -
Little Sichuan is known for its version of Sichuan cold noodles, and rightly so. Refreshing on this hot day with lots of heat-spiked sesame flavors and cucumber juiciness -
I’ve had Dongpo rou many times at Shanghainese restaurants. Sichuan also stakes a claim on Poet Dongpo and has its own version of this dish named in his honor. I preferred the non-sweet seasoning and acidic hightones against the fatty richness. The trotter’s rind and fat were braised to jelly-like soft unctuousness that was so seductive. And, I wanted to bathe in the juices.
The Pork a la Sichuan (aka fish-flavored pork or pork with garlic sauce) was a substitute for eggplant on the set menu. This didn’t do much for me, and I might stick with eggplant the next time around.
The kung pao chicken was undistinguished here. But I can’t say enough about the Xin Jiang roasted lamb with cumin, in a word, superb.
I concur with my fellow hounds that the standout of the evening was the Roasted Lamb with Cumin Powder. Among the rest, I also really liked the Dong Po Pork, the Salty Pickle Fish Soup, the Sichuan Cold Noodles, and all 4 of the cold plates. I will focus on the items that have not been commented on as much.
The Young Bamboo was the lightest flavor dish of all, and I made sure to taste that first before diving into the spicy bead curd strips and jellyfish. The bamboo was tender, and the overall feeling of the plate was springy and fresh, light but not bland. It was a lovely opener to the heavier hitting flavors later on.
The Cold Spiced Beef didn't really please the crowd that much. However, I will say that it was a nice, authentic preparation. The beef had good flavor, perhaps five-spice and soy based, similar to other cold stewed meats of this type. The beef was very thinly sliced and had the right amount of embedded tendon. My grandmother used to make something just like this, and we would put the meat between slices of bread like a sandwich and eat it for breakfast.
The Sichuan Cold Noodles had noodles with the right degree of Q-ness and a balanced blend of salty and spicy. The julienned cucumber was a nice cool counterpoint. I am a big fan of spicy cold noodles and tend to order them quite a bit. For a dish with few ingredients and really simple preparation, it is rather unfortuante that most restaurants don't seem to get the combination quite right. Some have the wrong ratio of noodles to sauce. Some are lacking in salt. Some have so much chili spice that it overwhelms everything else. Others use too much chili oil and leaves the noodles sitting in a pool of it. So I was pleasantly surprised that the version at Little Sichuan was pretty on the mark. I would recommend this especially on hot days when a cool noodle dish would be particularly welcome.
And just a small correction: although the 6-person menu listed Steamed Powdery Tender Beef as one of the entrees, because we also ordered the Boiled Beef as an extra dish, the server suggested that we switch to Steamed Powdery Pork Spareribs instead, which we did. This was quite disappointing. The meat was dry and chewy, a very big flaw considering that steaming usually helps any Steamed Powdery [whatever] dish retain its moisture. And the fact that the sparerib pieces were so non-descript that they might as well have been beef probably speaks for itself.
Just like most Chinese restaurants, even the best ones, you will get a great meal if you choose carefully. Definitely try the cumin lamb and spicy jellyfish if you haven't tasted them before or have been disappointed by versions elsewhere.
Thanks to Melanie for organizing. This was my and the hubby's first Chow gathering ever, and it was such a pleasure. I don't think we've ever had a meal where we discussed nothing but food the entire time. What fun! It was great meeting our fellow hounds on this adventure. We'll definitely be going to more.
and may I chime in as well...lamb, lamb, lamb. Really crazy tastes all dancing on the tongue. Killer hot...but not. Tingly. Fabulous. I second the pickles soup rec and the jellyfish. Also I loved the fish fragrant pork and since I was the lucky one to take it home, superlative when reheated.
this place is just down the hill from us and so glad to have made its acquaintance. Order right and you won't be disappointed.
I'd like to chime in here on some of the dishes we tasted.
Our banquet dinner included 6 cold plates. The spicy jellyfish was cut into thin strips that were coated in the sauce. Definitely a winner. I also enjoyed the Young Bamboo with Sweet Red Peppers and the spicy cold noodles as a counterpoint to some of the other, spicy dishes on the table.
The Salty Pickle Fish Soup was light and clean tasting, with chucks of fish so light we originally thought they were dumplings.
I also enjoyed the Dong Po Pork -- a couple of us spooned some of the "soup" into bowls to slurp it up. Nice and vinegary. The Whole Fish in Spicy Bean Curd Sauce was light and tasty, though not remarkable. Some liked this more than others.
Xin Jiang Stir-Fried Roasted Lamb with Cumin Powder was the table favorite -- this was an addition to the regular banquet menu for 6 and I'm so glad we tried it. The lamb was thinly sliced and highly flavored without the gritty taste that sometimes comes with cumin dishes. It was bursting with strong, cumin, garlic and chili flavors. If you order one thing, order this.
A second thanks to Melanie for organizing..