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Feb 19, 2013 09:41 PM

Szechuan reviews: Four Rivers and E Mei from Philly Chinatown

There have been a few threads about good Szechuan restaurants in Philadelphia, ranging from Han Dynasty who has scored "Top 50 in Philly" to the lesser known Red Kings. I am not an expert in Szechuan cuisine, but have eaten enough to know some of the ins and outs. I have not had better Szechuan foods than those from Four Rivers (真川味) and E Mei (峨嵋山荘). For those who are interested, E Mei was the previous Szechuan House from New Jersey -- same owner and chefs. I suspected such when I noticed the menu to be the same and the finished dishes look very similar, but I finally confirm it tonight.

In my view, these two are head and shoulders above Han Dynasty and Red Kings. Both Four Rivers and E Mei are very good. E Mei is much more decorated and upscale. Its foods are also more expensive, though not by much. I say on average 15% more. Four Rivers has more of a mom and pop restaurant feel to it, and the staffs are helpful. Sometime ago, I started to taste test Red King based on Shredded Beef with Spicy Green Pepper (小椒牛肉絲):

, so I decided to continue taste test Four Rivers and E Mei based on exactly the same dish. I actually have had this dish from these places long ago, but I decided to try them back to back. Four Rivers' was $10.95, and E Mei's was $14.95. The first photo is from Four Rivers. The second and third photos are from E Mei. They were both executed nicely and tasted very good. There are some differences.

1) The spicy peppers from the Four Rivers were cut crosswise, while the peppers from E Mei were cut lengthwise. Aside the cut, the peppers appear to be different. The peppers from Four Rivers have a thicker skin. The peppers from E Mei are thin, exactly how remember them from its previous life (Szechuan House). There are noticeably more beef from the E Mei dish.
2) The E Mei dish is noticeably more spicy in heat, and also has a numbness/tingling to it. It is possible that there are Szechuan peppercorns in the recipe. I cannot be sure, but the numbness feeling is very well known for Szechuan peppercorns.
3) The beef from E Mei has a tenderness which feels like the effect of baking soda marinating.
4) The E Mei dish has significantly more cooking oil (see the third photo). Four Rivers dish in comparison has less.

In short, I like both places and encourage people to try these two restaurants for good Szechuan foods.

By no mean this is a open and shut case. Please feel free to share your favor Szechuan restaurant. Maybe you like Four Rivers more than E Mei, or maybe you like E Mei better, or maybe hate both of them. Please feel free to share your opinions.

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  1. I did another head-to-head comparison of a rather famous and authentic Szechuan dish. It is known by a few different names. At Four Rivers, it is called "Pork Intestines in spicy sauce". It is "Spicy Pork Stew" at E Mei. They are essentially made of different components of a pig.

    Four River's dish (see photo 1) was composed of tofu, pickled cabbage, coagulated pork blood, and pork intestine. The dish was spicy, and was sold for $11.95. Overall, the dish was tasty to me.

    In contrast, the E Mei's version was quite different. It was $18.95, but come in two large containers as shown in the photo 2. It was much more liquidly that that of Four River's. It almost looked like two containers of soup. In photo 3, the dish shows a greater variety of ingredients: soy bean sprout, cabbage, dried chill pepper, pork, pork tongue, coagulated pork blood, pork intestine, and noticeable amount of Szechuan peppercorn. The E Mei dish is much spicier, and most importantly, the large amount of the peppercorn produced a pronounced numbing effect on my tongue. I drank quite a bit of water just to try to get rid of the numbing effect more so than the spiciness. As one E Mei employee told me, this is one of the most popular dish for takes-out. Overall, this dish was tasty, but also a bit of a torture for me. Heh heh heh. Its spiciness was high on the scale, but its numbing effect was over the top.

    This dish was executed quite differently by these two restaurants. I highly recommend trying both versions.

    14 Replies
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      So this thread really intrigued me. I am not an expert, or even close, regarding Szechuan food - most of what I have had is good - but never an "oh wow" experience. I went to Han Dynasty about 8 months ago for the first time (old city) and never went back. Again, food OK, not great, service truly meh, not worth the trip (from Queen Village). Last night we decided to try E Mei, and I can now truly say I have been blown away by a Szechuan meal! Two of us ordered way too much (but that's ok - I am having leftovers for lunch as I type). Spicy vegetable salad, dumplings in hot chile oil, dan dan noodles, fish in hot and spicy sauce and fried fish with dried hot pepper. we had ordered the dumplings and dan dan noodles at Han Dynasty and we thought these were much better. Dumplings very light and the meat filling very nicely seasoned and not overly compacted. The dan dan noodles just had a much more complex flavor than HD. The cold spicy vegetable salad was rich with sesame oil flavor and a great accompaniment to the other dishes - not very spicy and delightful with the fried fish dish. The two fish dishes were both perfectly prepared. The fish in H&S sauce was tender and not quite flakey, and the vegetables served with/under it were full of flavor. This dish is hotter now as I am eating it for lunch - the way that it was served allowed us to eat around some of the peppercorns (which I stopped doing after a bit) but now it has sat in the mixed up sauce over night! The fried fish was not a bit greasy and again, light and perfectly cooked. There were also some pieces of what I believe were just the fish skin with a little fat that were like fish chicharones - oh man.... Anyway, I loved this meal and we will be back You'll know us - we stand out - the two tall caucasian women : ) THANKS ChemicalK!

      1. re: Bigley9

        <Again, food OK, not great, service truly meh, not worth the trip>

        Same here. I do not hate it. I like it overall. I was just disappointment. I went there because I read it is voted as the top 50 restaurant in Philadelphia -- and it is the only Chinese restaurant on the list. That is something. After eating there, I didn't feel it was that great.

        <Spicy vegetable salad, dumplings in hot chile oil, dan dan noodles, fish in hot and spicy sauce and fried fish with dried hot pepper. >

        Wow, for two people? :D (a lot of food)

        <allowed us to eat around some of the peppercorns>

        I assume you mean the Szechuan peppercorns. Yeah, they are really interesting to chew on. :) My tongue got all numbed.

        I am glad that you have a good experience.

        <Anyway, I loved this meal and we will be back>

        Or you are try the other one: Four Rivers. They are 5-6 minutes walking distance from one another.

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          <wow for two people>
          yes, and two lunches today and probably at least another meal!

          <assume you mean the Szechuan peppercorns>
          yes, I was a little worried there were a lot, but then I just gave in - I love that tingly numb feeling!

          <Four Rivers>
          oh we will!
          Thanks again.

          1. re: Bigley9

            <I believe were just the fish skin with a little fat that were like fish chicharones>

            Oh yeah. Fish skin is not considered acceptable in many Chinese cuisine. What is fish chicharones? Is that fish stomach? Fish stomach can be a delicacy in many Chinese cuisines. So sometime you may have to ask head if there is something you don't like.

            Four Rivers is not nicely decorated. The good thing is that if you don't like the feel, you can just walk over E-Mei. :)

            Thanks for your update.

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              There were some pieces of the fried fish that were very soft and richer tasting than the regular meat. I assumed it was skin and something fat-like but it could have been anything! The only thing I could compare it to was chicharones - the fried pork skin ( with a bit of fat underneath) that is common in Mexican/ South American cuisine.
              Is Four Rivers similar to Dim Sum Garden in decor? (Doesn't t bother me when the food is good)

              1. re: Bigley9

                It's a step up from Dim Sum Garden. Doesn't feel like a take-out place, it's a real restaurant, just the decor is dated and the furniture is a little beat up.

                1. re: Bigley9

                  Four Rivers is a bit more comfortable than Dim Sum Garden. The decoration is old, and the tables and chairs, while adequately comfortable, are high school cafeteria like.

        2. re: Chemicalkinetics

          E Mei's spicy pork or meat dishes are truly outstanding. I love the Szechuan flavors in these. A great lunch value for less than $8.

          1. re: discndav

            a new BYOB Szechuan spot open up at 10th and Arch called "Traditional Szechuan", the $7 lunch was very good last week. The dinner menu has 14 different flavors to choose from.

            1. re: discndav

              Yep. I saw it. I even walked in there, but then didn't get to eat there. Good to know about your experience. Maybe I will try one day.

              1. re: discndav

                Went to Xi'an sizzling wok other day, also noticed this one. l OTOH will wait for C_K to try, two opinions always better than one.

            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

              Your comparisons of dishes is a great way to describe these restaurants. Thank you so much for your posts. Today we had lunch at Emei. And by happenstance, a Chinese looking family followed us there after I asked them for the address because they had their smartphones out. We really enjoyed it and we ran into them later and they thanked us because they also really liked it. So your posts are having a great ripple effect.

              1. re: myra

                I am glad that you enjoyed your meals. I am flattered by your compliments. Thanks. :)

            3. Thanks! I like these kinds of reviews - they make me both happy and hungry.

              1 Reply
              1. re: lost squirrel

                Thanks for your encouragement. I know this is a specialized review, but the topic of Szechuan restaurants in Philly has came up a few times that I feel it would be nice to a thread dedicate to it.

              2. which one do you like better overall? I'm always on the look out for a new place to take my GF's family when i'm down in philly

                i found hand dynasty to be just so so, definitely didn't live up to some reviews i read

                4 Replies
                1. re: Lau

                  <hand dynasty>

                  :) Is that a typo or did it intentionally? Han Dynasty has an interesting name because its website address is, which it always strikes me as Handy Nasty. :P

                  I have been to Han Dynasty once. I read many great reviews and it was voted as the top 50 restaurants in Philly. I love the organization of the menu because it is friendlier to newcomers than the typical Chinese menu. Other than that, I was not super impressed with the foods, service or the atmosphere. Not bad, but not great.

                  Back to Four Rivers and E Mei, I really like both of them, but they are different. E Mei dishes has stronger favor with liberal usage of Szechuan peppercorn and they are more oily in general. The prices are averagely higher, but the portion sizes are sometime larger too. It has a much nicer interior decoration, and the staffs are more professional.

                  Four Rivers dishes are spicy but usually not as spicy as E Mei. The dishes are less oily in general. It is a much smaller restaurant, and because of this, the staffs are more attentive and supportive (with advises). The interior is clean, but really could use better decoration. It looks like a college student apartment with very basic tables and chairs.

                  In my opinion, if you want to take someone out for a special or a semi-special occasion, or you want to have strong Szechuan food, then E Mei is better. If you are by yourself or just taking a close friend for a causal meal, or you want to eat more frequently, then Four Rivers is better.

                  If you are just taking your GF, then I wouldn't mind suggesting to go to Four Rivers. If you are taking the entire family, then E Mei is probably better. Now, that is assuming, they are custom to strong and spicy Szechuan dishes.

                  Some E Mei dishes are very strong for me that I get a very mild stomach cramp after. :) Your mileage may vary of course.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    *han dynasty (it was a typo)

                    i agree they made it very friendly for non-chinese speaking people which i can't say for alot of chinese restaurants (i think thats great). although i will say having a non-chinese server telling me what to order was kind of weird haha (it was fine though, our server was a nice guy)

                    thanks for the thoughts, ill probably try to take them there next time

                    1. re: Lau

                      <i agree they made it very friendly for non-chinese speaking people which i can't say for alot of chinese restaurants (i think thats great).>

                      I went to the Old City Han Dynasty, and I only saw Asian servers. Its menu is classified in term of "styles and technique", so the spicy shredded green pepper CHICKEN, spicy shredded green pepper PORK, and spicy shredded green pepper BEEF are listed right next to each other. Whereas, most Chinese menu are categorized by meats. So chicken dishes of different techniques are group together, pork dishes of different techniques are together...etc. I think if a person is familiar with the Szechuan techniques, then the latter can be slightly better, but if a person is new to Szechuan foods, then the former organization is definitely much easier to understand.

                      Good luck. Like them or not, please let me know what you think of them. I am not related to neither restaurants, so if you don't like them, you don't like them. I won't take it personally. :) If you happened to try both, then let me know what you think. Thanks.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        our server wasn't asian at the old city one where we went

                        if i end up going, ill let u know

                2. Thanks for the write up. I haven't been to E Mei, but I've been to both Han Dynasty and Four Rivers (both very good restaurants).

                  Regarding the famous numbing/tingling sensation you get from Sichuan peppercorns - when you experience it, it is unmistakable. It's like you gurgled a mouthful of topical anesthetic. I've actually never gotten that sensation anywhere in Philadelphia. Only place I've experienced it is Lan Sheng in New York.

                  30 Replies
                  1. re: deprofundis

                    < It's like you gurgled a mouthful of topical anesthetic>

                    Now that you mentioned it, yeah it is like anesthetic on tongue.

                    < I've actually never gotten that sensation anywhere in Philadelphia.>

                    I don't think Four Rivers use a lot of Sichuan peppercorn, maybe in small amount. I can taste Sichuan peppercorn from E Mei dishes. Some are subtle, but some are very pronounced. The shredded spicy green pepper with beef has a hint of Sichuan pepperforn. The pork stew (with pork blood, tongue, and intestines...etc) has a lot of peppercorn, especially in the sauce.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      Did you ever get "ma la" from the food at Han Dynasty? I haven't. To me their food is just hot hot hot. Not that I'm complaining; I like hot.

                      1. re: deprofundis

                        <Did you ever get "ma la" from the food at Han Dynasty?>

                        No, I am not sure. Is "Ma La" their maximum spicy level? The word "Ma La" (麻辣) means numbing and spicy hot. This unique taste is, of course, largely due the Szechuan peppercorn effect. In theory, it does not mean plain hot. It means it has both numbing and hot. But Han Dynasty probably uses it for a spicy level indicator.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          they are two separate word, "ma" = numbing, "la" = spicy

                          you usually can see the sichuan peppercorns in your food. spicy ("la") is a characteristic you can see in alot of chinese food although sichuan and hunan cuisine is most well known for it (for good reason they by far have the spiciest chinese food), but "ma" is basically exclusively a characteristic associated with sichuan cuisine. To my knowledge no other chinese cuisine uses those peppercorns

                          1. re: Lau

                            < but "ma" is basically exclusively a characteristic associated with sichuan cuisine.>


                            < To my knowledge no other chinese cuisine uses those peppercorns>

                            I think they do, but very rare, and in very small amount. I mean you see people of all regions buy Szechuan peppercorn for seasoning.


                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              I was thinking of this thread last night during dinner. Far from Philly, sorry, but had a really good sichuan meal. Two entrees - a fish dish and a chicken dish. Both very spicy. The fish dish had the peppercorns, and yeah, it's numbing. Or tingling. Or something. But very distinctive. The chicken dish was also spicy - but no peppercorns, and no numbing sensation.

                              1. re: Bob Loblaw


                                I was never a huge user of the Sichuan peppercorn. In fact, I am still not a big user. I have it in my home kitchen, but most of the time I don't use it. However, I do find it to be very unique. A couple of times, I was bored of what to do, and I added a few sprinkle of Sichuan pappercorn to my typical pan fried salmon, pizza, and pasta...etc, and it really kind of makes these old dishes new to me again. It just gives them enough of a twist.

                                Get a little bag and see if you will like it too.

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  these were restaurant meals. i can't imagine ever cooking with that much spice, or oil.

                                  meanwhile, I find the character overlap between numb (麻木), 'ma po' (as in ma po tofu)(麻婆), and cannabis - 大麻, or 'big numb' - to be quite amusing.

                                  1. re: Bob Loblaw

                                    Agree. These are restaurant dishes and vast majority of people do not cook like this at

                                    I meant to use Sichuan peppercorn as kind of a substitute for regular black peppercorn on your dishes. Kind of like these people:


                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      Excellent sichuan pepper oil, both red and green available at large Asian markets 290 ml bottle for @ $ 8.00.
                                      BTW felt the new Cheulicious which went from Four Rivers to NJ was anything but great.

                                      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                        :( I have yet to make it to Cheuilcious. It is kind of out of my way, but maybe one of these days. I wish it all the best.

                                        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                          Which brand of pepper oil is this? I've only tried one and it had basically no pepper. Haven't tried to make my own yet.

                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                Valley Sheppard in the RTM is now making a Gouda like cheese with Sichuan peppercorns that is addictive!

                                                1. re: Bigley9

                                                  Really? That is interesting -- I can already imagine it. (I go to Reading Terminal very often. I was just there yesterday. Tested "Hunger Burger" first time yesterday too)

                                      2. re: Bob Loblaw

                                        You have to be careful and not literally translate Chinese characters. 大麻 dàmá here does not mean "big numb" - it means hemp or marijuana. It represents a compound "word" just like we have in English: corndog, uproar or highbrow. We don't break every compound word into its component parts, neither do the Chinese.

                                        1. re: scoopG

                                          well, yes, sure - except that marijuana kinda does mean big numb, in any language.

                                2. re: Lau

                                  Ok, I gave it some thought. Five spices powder (五香粉). Szechuan peppercorn is usually one of the five spices. Also Chinese marinate sauce (滷水) usually has the Szechuan peppercorn. These two, of course, are widely used outside of Szechuan cuisine. It is just other cuisines only use a touch of this peppercorn.

                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    hmmm yah you're right i guess that is true 五香粉 is heavily used particularly in southern chinese cuisine.

                                    滷水 is prevalent in teochew / hokkien / cantonese cooking (although with cantonese i think its more of an HK-cantonese that's a function of teochews moving to HK). Btw not all a universal recipe, alot of stores have their own twists and turns on it, but you are correct that they all use 花椒. Actually, I just remembered you actually see what they use in it in this post I wrote on a place in HK (its very famous in HK)

                                    1. re: Lau

                                      :) A very nice post with wonderful photos.

                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        thanks! go check out the hong kong and singapore sections of my blog if you want to see some chinese food porn

                                3. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  I just meant it as "numbing and spicy hot". I've never gotten the numbing effect from the food at Han Dynasty, but their food sure is spicy hot.

                                  1. re: deprofundis

                                    Ah, now I get your meaning. You were asking if I ever get the numbing effect from Han Dynasty. I have only been there once, but, no, I did not.

                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      I can remember ordering Fuqi Feipian at Han Dynasty-Old City (cold Beef & Tripe in Chili Oil on their menu) where there was visible powdered Sichuan peppercorns on top, and definitely I tasted them. But definitely not as much as I would see at some places in Boston.

                                      1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                                        <Fuqi Feipian>

                                        Husband and Wife Lung Slice -- except there is no lung. :P

                              2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                The peppercorn chicken (I think that's how they call it in English) at Four Rivers definitely makes my mouth feel like that.

                                1. re: barryg

                                  I don't know if I have tried that. Thanks. I will look out for it. :) I always feel Four Rivers restaurant uses less peppercorn than E Mei. This is not a good or bad thing. It is just different take on the same cuisine.

                                  1. re: barryg

                                    You can actually see it in their peppercorn chicken dish. Not 100% sure but I think it is the liberal dusting on top that is the Szechuan pepper but ground up. Try their Kung Po chicken ask for extra spicy it is out of this world!

                                    1. re: dalovin

                                      For what it is worth (and I forgot to mention this before), you can always ask for extra Szechuan peppercorn at Four Rivers.

                              3. I've been reading all the threads about Szechuan food in Philly with interest! I've been to Han Dynasty in Old City multiple times and recently branched out and tried Four Rivers. Haven't been to E Mei yet, but it's on the list.

                                I've enjoyed most of the items I've had at Han Dynasty, including dumplings in chili oil, dan dan noodles, pork belly double-cooked style, pork garlic sauce style, and three cup chicken. Have also had the pickled vegetable with pork soup and the spicy beef noodle soup, which were just okay.

                                At Four Rivers, I tried steamed fish with soy bean sauce (豆酥魚), minced pork with bean noodle (螞蟻上樹), and double-cooked pork belly (回鍋肉). I liked the double-cooked pork at Han Dynasty better. I think they might saute the pork belly longer and/or at a higher temperature, getting a better sear and texture. The Four Rivers version also includes a lot more vegetables, which is not necessarily a bad thing but resulted in the dish being a little watery.

                                Han Dynasty doesn't have the steamed fish with soy bean sauce or minced pork with bean noodle, so there's no direct comparison. However, since these are 2 of my favorite dishes, Four Rivers gets brownie points for having them on their menu.

                                The minced pork with bean noodle was pretty good. The fish was excellent--it was cooked perfectly and the soy bean sauce (more a topping than a sauce, really) was delicious despite having gotten a little soggy (I got take-out and the food sat in a container for over an hour before I got to eat it). I highly recommend the fish with soy bean sauce--nice change of pace from fish with hot bean sauce, which is more commonly found.

                                The staff at Four Rivers were super nice. The lady who took my order came over while I was waiting for my food and pointed out a bunch of other dishes that she would recommend.

                                So pending further research, Han Dynasty wins for double-cooked pork belly (and proximity to Franklin Fountain!), but Four Rivers wins for a much broader menu selection.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: msiangal

                                  My experience at Han Dynasty is limited. I have only been there once. I order than Dan Dan noodle and the Chinese scallion (green onion) pan cake. Dan Dan noodle was ok, but I wasn't blown away. The scallion pancake was average and maybe a bit below average -- granted that scallion pancake is not a Szechuan specialty. Overall, I do not dislike Han Dynasty. I guess the whole "Best Chinese in Philly" by multiple sources set my expectation way too high, and I came away with the feeling of "Are you kidding me that this is the best Chinese food in Philly?" :)


                                  <At Four Rivers, I tried steamed fish with soy bean sauce (豆酥魚), minced pork with bean noodle (螞蟻上樹), and double-cooked pork belly (回鍋肉).>

                                  I had double cooked/saute pork belly and minced pork with bean noodle from Four Rivers, but have not had steamed fish with soy bean sauce. I like double cooked pork belly, but have not had the Han Dynasty version. I didn't think too much of minced pork with bean noodle. It was ok to me.

                                  < I highly recommend the fish with soy bean sauce>

                                  Thanks. I will give that try next time.

                                  I have 水煮魚 (Water Boiled Fish Fillet) multiple times from both restaurants before. I ordered a Water Boiled Fish Fillet take-out from Four Rivers this Saturday and one from E Mei Sunday/tonight, and will write a review soon -- probably last back to back comparison from me.

                                  <Han Dynasty wins for double-cooked pork belly (and proximity to Franklin Fountain!>

                                  For me, it is the other way around. I hang around Chinatown a lot Going to Han Dynasty is out of my way. Just this Saturday and Sunday, I ate at Joy Tsin Lau for Dim Sum, went to Dim Sum Garden. I ate at Jade Harbor for steamed fish. I did two take-outs (Sat and Sun) from Four Rivers. One take-out from E Mei.