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Jul 23, 2010 07:30 AM

Szechuan Spice to replace Zen

From the Pioneer Press:

"Trendy Uptown Minneapolis is getting hotter. A Szechuan restaurant will open next month at Lyn-Lake.

Two owners of Tea House, which became an instant hit in St. Paul when it opened in 2007, have taken over the former Zen Restaurant. Jenni Shi and chef/husband ChangFu Xue are remodeling the space and calling it Szechuan Spice.

The menu will be different from Tea House, although some favorites, such as scallion pancakes, soup dumplings and dan dan noodles, will be available. Like Tea House, the food will be mostly Szechuan, but authentic Hunan dishes will be added. Hunan, Shi explains, is even spicier than Szechuan and made with peppers rather than peppercorns.

The couple, who moved here from New York City to open Tea House on White Bear Avenue, think Uptown could use a good authentic Chinese restaurant. "I think we'll do well there," says Shi.

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  1. I dined there on Friday night with a couple of friends. Here are my thoughts. (I had not been to Zen, so I cannot compare.)

    The space is quite pleasant. Clean lines, a few decorative touches, but not fussy. The place was about 1/3 full, and I did not notice any particular noise issues. Service was attentive but not overbearing. There is some off-street parking just south of the building that I think is shared with the salon.

    We had the scallion pancakes and steamed vegetable dumplings for starters. I have a new addiction: scallion pancakes. I read about them on this board, and had to try--THANKS. These were 7 wedges for crispy on the outside, tender in the middle yumminess for $3.50. The dumplings were really flavorful which was nice. Often vegetarian versions lack any depth. They were the big round dumplings, not the "pot sticker" style. The starters were served within 10 minutes of our order.

    For entrees, we had the szechuan asparagus, ma po tofu and happy family tofu. The asparagus was almost smokey and had a wonderful flavor. At first it seemed like a big boring plate of asparagus, but it was filling and interesting. the Ma po tofu is a spicy peppery dish. We asked for the tofu "crispy" which is our preference, but not, we were told, authentic. They were happy to do it. The Happy Family tofu came with pork. (Though listed under veggie options, "with pork" was on the menu, and I guess I did not specify.) It had a very nice flavor, similar to the ma po tofu, but slightly less spicy. I had hoped for more vegetables in the dish, it was mostly tofu and some pork. I liked the flavors, but both tofu dishes were a bit oily.

    Our bill, including a generous tip, was $20 a person. They do not yet have a liquor license, so that was without any drinks other than soda. We all had leftovers to take home.

    The menu is large and I did not look at most of the meat based offerings. It had some very interesting looking options all under $20, many under $10. One complaint: no descriptions on the menu. What is the difference between stir fry asparagus and szechuan asparagus? Your guess is all you have unless you ask about every menu item. I look forward to a return visit and to further comments on this board.

    Szechuan Spice
    3016 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55408

    1. I have had a couple of dishes as take-out from Szechuan Spice.

      The Ma Po Tofu that I had for lunch one day was quite tasty. I have only eaten this dish in the Twin Cities, so my knowledge of it is limited. It was close to, but not quite as good as the Ma Po from Little Szechuan at its best.

      The other dish was Szechuan green beans. These seemed to be the classic preparation (again, based on my Twin Cities experience) with ample amounts of garlic and preserved vegetable. The beans were a little bit soggy, but I put that down to the fact that this was takeout that I could eat only after getting home and refereeing a fight between my kids. Otherwise, I enjoyed the dish. (The rest of my family enjoyed their meal as well, but I can't recall what they had.)

      All in all, the food seems quite solid. I imagine that we will work it in to our rotation with our other Uptown Chinese choice, First Wok. I love having the option for good Szechuan style dishes nearby. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of choices for Chinese in Uptown.

      1. I've been there a couple of times now for lunch, and I have to say that I was pretty darn impressed. Especially for the amount of food you get for a whopping 8 bucks, this is a nice find, I think.

        Again, I have to add the caveat that I have only been there for lunch and only had some selections on their designated lunch menu. Also, while I have lived in a number of different cities in the US and had a lot of Chinese food, both fantastic and crappy, I don't claim to know too much about what is or is not authentic.

        So, that said, I have to say that I was thrilled with the shredded pork dish I had. The pork itself was tender and quite flavorful. I can always go for a little more spicy kick with my food than Twin Cities Asian places are willing to send my way, but this made an admirable nod toward spiciness. The egg roll was a very good version of the classic -- lots of fresh cabbage (which I like), and not overly huge. As a starter I had some egg drop soup that was what you might expect. Not fantastic, I have to say, but totally fine, all the same.

        For the second outing I had some hot and sour soup, the quality of which far outstripped the egg drop soup. I'm eager to try the wonton soup (the other option) sometime soon. Decided on a chicken dish that was good, though could use some more punch (it did not have a chili pepper next to it, though with as friendly as the staff is, you can probably convince them to punch it up a bit).

        So, all of this is to say that in a city that I find horribly lacking in good Chinese food, Szechuan Spice has impressed me. It hasn't blown me away, mind you, but it's reasonably priced and really very solid.

        Szechuan Spice
        3016 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55408

        2 Replies
        1. re: frenchdisco

          How does it compare to Little Szechuan?

          1. re: scoopG

            We went Tuesday night. I've only had take out from LS, so not able to compare it. That said, I thought this was good (and as good as Grand Szechuan). The juicy buns were good, but not as flavorful as I've had before (in Philadelphia). The chung king chili chicken was great - flavorful and really crispy. You could really taste the szechuan peppers. We also had the Chengdu shrimp. Loved it. Peppery and spicy with lots of ginger.

        2. Like Ned Flanders, I like my surprises mild. Szechuan Spice was elected for one last Minneapolis meal before heading out to the airport. Such a mild surprise it was to discover how agreeable Szechuan Spice is! Their Chinese name, 天府 – Tian1Fu3 means Heavenly Province or Land Of Plenty, sobriquets for Sichuan. This eatery is a terrific addition to south Minneapolis and the Lyn Lake neighborhood – I hope they can endure.

          The interior is dark purple and their liquor license is in place. It appears that they can seat around 85 people here and have several round tables for large groups. Sit near the front to avoid the TV. Service was prompt and friendly.

          Szechuan Kung Pao Chicken was negligibly sweet but not over-sauced and appropriately spiced. I was well disposed to their Sautéed Pea Shoots: expertly prepared although I would have liked more garlic. A very endorsable version of Ma Po Tofu is served up here. You can order it with or without Pork. Szechuan Doubled Cooked Pork is the traditionally made Sichuan classic and they do it justice here, with graceful bits of black beans and green pepper. (If you don’t like fatty bacon then stick to their plain Double Cooked Pork.)

          They have 35 lunch specials, ranging in price from $3.50 (Bamboo Tips in Spicy Sauce) to $8.50 (Kung Pao Shrimp.) Entrees over $7.50 come with Rice, Egg Roll and Soup. Served Monday to Friday from 11 am to 3 pm.

          I had to pass up their XLB or soup dumplings (6 for $6.50) but will have to save that for another trip.


          Tel: 612-353-4281
          Fax: 612-208-1552

          Open every day at 11:00 am. Closes at 10 pm (Sunday to Thursday) and 11 pm (Friday and Saturday.)

          1. visited for an off-hours lunch recently. the place looks. . . just as if the tea house folks opened a place in uptown. interior executed in chic deep plum shades and more minimalist decor than the st paul and dinkytown locations. familiar faces on the foh folks, whom we recognized from tea house 2 (st paul). seems both dateworthy and potentially uptown hipster-friendly, while not unwelcoming to mixed-age family groups and "ladies who lunch" types.

            menu is basically a filled out version of tea house's, with smart expansions of the vegetarian section and a wide overall variety of options. noted some happy hour specials on cheap 2fer1 and $3 beers and noshes for $1-$3 including edamame(!) and other uptown-friendly enticements. also noted some chef's specials requiring 24 hours advance notice. also of note: this establishment claims to do peking duck (whole or half). i would be curious to hear more about that.

            juicy buns passed muster :) also had chicken with dried bean curd and a basic kung pao.
            1) we ordered dishes at baseline, not specifying spiciness level. i would not do this again, they were very "mn mild." flavors were good, just lacking a little pop.
            2) dried bean curd was good, but i prefer evergreen's light and nuanced hand with this ingredient. nice fresh ginger shreds in this dish, & i would have enjoyed even more.
            3) quality of ingredients and execution seemed good, on par with the other tea house restaurants.
            4) service good.

            we will be back to try more on the menu. i think this is a great location for them & hope they do very well.

            5 Replies
            1. re: soupkitten

              Did not see Peking Duck on the menu - was that a House Special?

              1. re: scoopG

                it was under a section on the first page titled (i think) "chef's specialties/suggestions." the section took up about 1/2 the page. now i am trying to recall the price. . . i think it was $24 (half) and maybe $38 (whole)? something like that? someone's gotta order it at some point to see if/how they do a very elaborate presentation! maybe even me--i haven't had peking duck since i worked at a restaurant that made it close to 15 years ago!

                you sure did a whirlwind tour of restaurants while you were in town & thanks for all the new threads to discuss, ScoopG! :)

                1. re: soupkitten

                  Thanks. I'll be sure to try their Peking Duck next time!

                  1. re: scoopG

                    Had lunch there today based on ScoopG's recommendation. The Szechuan Doubled Cooked Pork was fantastic as was the chicken dish we had (it was similar to chung king chili chicken, but with jalepenos rather than bell peppers). This may replace Grand Szechuan as are go to spicy spot.

                    Grand Szechuan
                    10602 France Ave S, Bloomington, MN 55431

                    1. re: fromtheD

                      Glad you liked it. If I am staying in downtown Minneapolis, Szechuan Spice is where I would head to first for my Sichuan fix! Here's a photo of Chung King Chicken (also known as Chongqing a huge city and municipality in Sichuan) from a popular NYC Sichuanese spot: