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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 handynasty.com, 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.

                  17 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: 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

                            2. 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.

                            2. This will be my final back-to-back review for the two restaurants. This is a very classic and popular Szechuan dish. This dish has the same Chinese name (水煮魚) from both restaurants, but translated differently in English. Four Rivers calls it "Water Boiled Fish Fillet", while E Mei names it as "Fish Fillet in Hot and Spicy Sauce" Four Rivers' translation is word-for-word, while E Mei's translation is probably more descriptive.

                              The first photo is from Four Rivers, while the second is from E Mei. I thought both were nicely done. I don't find significant difference between the two just like the Shredded Beef with Spicy Green Pepper dish. Unlike the previous two dishes, Four Rivers' version of this "Water Boiled Fish Fillet" actually had more heat than E Mei's version, also unlikely previously, the E Mei version had more vegetables and herbs. Finally, the fish fillet from Four Rivers had more texture, while the fish fillet from E Mei seemed to be more soft.

                              1. I want to thank all of you and especially Chemicalkinetics for a wonderful comparison/opinion. It's the type of review that I wish was used more (not just for Chinese). Side by side comparison. With commentary and.. OMG pictures! of what to expect. Too often I have been to some place that someone has raved about only to find the menu formulation has changed.

                                thanks guys........and based on all this, will give E Mei a try

                                1. I promise. This is the last head-to-head comparison. I don't mean to interrupt this thread again and again. I tired Dan Dan Noodle (擔擔麵/担担面) from Four Rivers and E Mei restaurants. While Four Rivers' version tasted alright, I have to give this one to E Mei. I don't have any photos because I didn't plan to review this time. However, after tasting the Dan Dan Noodle from both places, I really want to write a quick review.

                                  Short summary is: E Mei's version is much better.

                                  Four Rivers' version was slightly spicy and slightly sweet using medium width noodle with minced pork. It also had a nutty favor -- probably from peanut sauce or possibly sesame sauce. It actually reminded me of the cool peanut sauce noodle. It did not have any Szechuan peppercorn as far as I can taste/smell. While it tasted fine, it is not what I would consider to be the Dan Dan Noodle.

                                  E Mei's used thin noodle with minced pork as well. The sauce was slightly spicier than that of Four Rivers and was not sweet at all, but most importantly, it had significantly amount of ground Szechuan peppercorn. I could smell the Szechuan peppercorn. The inclusion of Szechuan peppercorn gave the much needed taste.

                                  I also had Dan Dan Noodle from Han Dynasty. In my opinion, E Mei's version is better. Han Dynasty's version was very spicy, but lacked Szechuan peppercorn, so it was too one-dimensional.


                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    I had Dan Dan at Han Dynasty and E-Mei, and also though that E-Mei's version was above and beyond better. I have since then moved away from Philadelphia and haven't found a comparable version. Their Hot & Sour soup is also very, very good.

                                    It will be absolutely awesome if someone can try and get the recipe from the restaurant.

                                    1. re: speeder

                                      <Their Hot & Sour soup is also very, very good.>

                                      Thanks. I will give it a try next time. Much appreciated.

                                    2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      I really like the head-to-head comparisons... though I have to say since I love huajiao I'll pick the restaurant that uses more of it every time... :-/

                                    3. I've been to both places a few times each now and they're both good. It really depends on what dish you're after. I like the Dan Dan Noodles at E Mei better than Four Rivers or Han Dynasty, though they use a thinner noodle at E Mei than either HD or Four Rivers. At Four Rivers, I really like the spicy cucumbers and the Peppercorn Chicken over the similar Chongquing Spicy Chicken at E Mei (I don't know if E Mei has anything like the cucumbers on their menu). The celery and tofu appetizer dish at E Mei is great. If friendly service is important to you, though, go to Four Rivers.

                                      11 Replies
                                      1. re: Buckethead

                                        <If friendly service is important to you, though, go to Four Rivers.>

                                        I think someone has also said this before. Can you elaborate a bit more? Is the service at E Mei unfriendly? I haven't noticed that yet. Thanks.

                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                          Our service at E Mei was a little distant at first (i think they were afraid we had wandered in expecting Asian American food)but was then very friendly

                                          1. re: Bigley9

                                            I see. You were not the first person I heard that, so I followed up with you. Thanks

                                            In my experience, E Mei is meant to provide more professional waitering, whereas Four Rivers is more mom and pop friendliness. For example, the manager and staffs at E Mei tend to say more things like "Yes. Yes, sir. Yes..." "That is correct, sir" The staffs at Four Rivers tend to ask me "How goes the grocery shopping (in Chinatown) today?" "(Let me guess) You will ordering Spicy Green Pepper Beef?" They sometime remember what I ordered last time -- kind of flattening and scary. :D

                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              Do you happen to know what language the wait staff tends to speak at these restaurants?
                                              My wife speaks Cantonese - and yeah, we tend to get somewhat different service/advice when she's speaking to the waitstaff in Cantonese. We were all set to order a steamed whole fish at one chinatown restaurant (forget which) when the waitress told us the fish had been frozen.
                                              But no one in my wife's family speaks Mandarin, or any other Chinese languages.

                                              1. re: Bob Loblaw

                                                it will not be cantonese (if it is something is wrong). Sichuan has its own dialect although usually not all the staff is from sichuan, so usually the lingua franca is mandarin. Cantonese in all likelihood will not be useful at all (its not mutually intelligible)

                                                1. re: Bob Loblaw

                                                  Both restaurants mainly speak Mandarian Chinese. Four Rivers speak Mandarian, and I doubt they speak Cantonese. E-Mei wait staffs also speak Mandarian, but I "feel" at least one guy speak his Mandarian with a Cantonese accent, which means he may speak Cantonese.

                                                  <We were all set to order a steamed whole fish at one chinatown restaurant (forget which) when the waitress told us the fish had been frozen. >

                                                  Ouch. I know some people eat steamed frozen fish, but it is considered a poor execution for Cantonese Chinese.

                                                  My feeling is that people at Four Rivers are very friendly and open to non-Chinese speakers. I have seen them interact with non-Chinese patrons. Their English is not perfect, but understandable, and they are very patient and willing to spend time to discuss the dish and share advices.

                                                  People at E-Mei also speak English fine, but I feel they are more reserved and less willing to speak to patrons (Chinese or not).

                                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                    Thanks. Around what I expected. something is not "wrong" if a Sechuan restaurant speaks Cantonese, btw - people can choose to make whatever food they want to. It just wouldn't be 'their' cuisine. The best restaurant I've been to in Provence had a Japanese chef. Some of the best Provencal cuisine I've ever eaten.

                                                    1. re: Bob Loblaw

                                                      that is a fair point, but ill almost guarantee in the US if you find a sichuan restaurant with cantonese speakers at the helm it will likely be bad, chinese people tend to stick to their own cuisines (saying chinese food is like saying european food) and even in places like hong kong where there are some great sichuan restaurants they are all run by sichuan people. specifically if we talk about cantonese people part of the reason is that sichuan food is actually not very palatable to alot of cantonese who really can't deal with spicy food at all.

                                                      while its clearly not impossible for someone outside the cuisine to be good at cooking, but its usually the exception not the rule. The japanese are one of the few who tend to be good at adapting others cuisines (japanese style french and italian come to mind as you just mentioned, but they are by far in the minority)

                                                      1. re: Lau

                                                        The other thing is that the restaurant could be owned or hire staff from anywhere, but still have Szechuan chef in the kitchen. Like Han Dynasty.

                                            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              "I think someone has also said this before. "

                                              That may have been me, I've said it in other threads. There's one server in particular at E Mei who is just not friendly, interacting with him is unpleasant so I keep it to a minimum. The other servers are mostly fine, all business like you say below. But the service at Four Rivers is genuinely welcoming and wants you to have a good meal, and that's especially valuable if you're like me and don't speak the language and aren't familiar with all the dishes and ingredients. At Four Rivers my questions were met with enthusiasm that I was even asking questions in the first place.

                                              1. re: Buckethead

                                                That's funny - there was one server who had an almost angry expression the whole time we were there, we were joking that we were glad we didn't get him!

                                          2. As l tend to follow Chemicalkinetics to Chinese restaurants whenever back in the Philadelphia area.l had been to Four Rivers before and was not impressed, thus thought would give E Mei a shot.
                                            As stated by CK, fancy-ish place with friendly and helpful waitstaff and comfortable seating. Went for an early dinner and was the only caucasian in the house, usually a very good sign.
                                            Ordered the hot/sour soup based on my preference and one poster loved it, l did not, decent contents but the soup itself was one dimensional and frankly boring.
                                            Ordered the Dan-Dan noodles based on CK and was blessed with a biggish bowl of incredibly temperature hot noodles with well-seasoned meat and spice that included a ton of Szechuan peppercorn, good but too much to eat.
                                            Ordered a fav of mine, eggplant and garlic casserole, again ungodly temp hot and well cooked.
                                            Here comes the but: Both the latter two dishes had a reservoir of oil 2-4 tbl in the Dan-Dan and at least a cup and a half in the casserole, rendering the lower 60% inedible for me.
                                            l have noticed this huge 'oil' layer in the less expensive Chinese restaurants in Phila Chinatown and for me a huge turnoff.
                                            Does everyplace there do this now ? Have seen in at least 6 places.

                                            21 Replies
                                            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                              E Mei is considered fairly close to the kind of Szechuan foods you would get if you are in China. Their dishes are spicier than many other Szechuan restaurants. I actually have not had their hot and sour soup. I like their Dan Dan noodle especially the good bend of hot pepper (hot spicy) and Szechuan peppercorn (numbing). I don't think I have had the eggplant and garlic, but I absolutely believe E Mei uses a lot of oil. I have seen this in many of their dishes. See my many photos here.

                                              It is not unusual for Szechuan cuisine to use plenty of oil comparing to other Chinese cuisines. One of the arguments is that oil does a fantastic job of extracting the Capsaicin (hot spicy chemical) out to the foods.

                                              <Does everyplace there do this now ? >

                                              If you like less oily foods, then I recommend trying Cantonese cuisine.

                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                'If you like less oily foods, then I recommend trying Cantonese cuisine.'

                                                Really, that is my option. l certainly hope not.

                                                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                  I've had some steamed dishes at Szechuan restaurants that were very good. There is spicy steamed beef (I think they referred to it as boiled) at Four Rivers I really liked, the sauce was not overly oily at all. Also I recently tried the dan dan noodles at Pin Wei in KOP and while it definitely had oil, as typical of the dish, it wasn't drowning in it like some places.

                                                  1. re: barryg

                                                    sichuan food is oily even in sichuan its oily, but its sort of oily in a different way in that while some dishes maybe be in a bath of oil (they're supposed to be) if they're made right you don't feel like you ate something really oily afterwards (like say you would if you ate a bunch of KFC or something).

                                                    however, i would be surprised if they are "considered fairly close to the kind of Szechuan foods you would get if you are in China". I'll give it a try next time i'm in philly, but I haven't found any sichuan food in the US that is that is at that level (although not saying it isnt good still), the food i had in chengdu was really good (my friends family lives there) and was just on a different level than any sichuan food in the US. The closest ive had was at some private kitchens in hong kong

                                                    1. re: Lau

                                                      Don't waste your time. Neither Four Rivers nor Emei are "fairly close to the kind of Szechuan foods you would get if you are in China."

                                                      1. re: Lau

                                                        Lau, have you been to Lan Sheng? If so, what did you think?

                                                        1. re: deprofundis

                                                          deprofundis - i have been to lan sheng, but only once and i think i ordered the wrong dishes (it was not good), so ive been meaning to go back to try and order better

                                                      2. re: barryg

                                                        Well, yes, steamed dishes are not going to be nearly as oily.

                                                        <(I think they referred to it as boiled)>

                                                        Are you talking about "水煮XX" (Water Boiled XX) in Four Rivers? Those meats are fried, and then put in the broth/sauce.

                                                      3. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                        Definitely not your only option, but Szechuan cuisine is more oily than some. Here are some photos of Szechuan cuisine (川菜).



                                                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger


                                                            I have just been to Red King 2 today. Maybe you will like it better. Both Red King and Red King 2 offers their Szechuan dishes with significantly less oil. Their dishes are generally less spicy (hot) and less oil, and sweeter. I have been to Red King, and today I tried Red King 2. Red King 2 has a very similar style as Red King -- not surprising. The owner is a Cantonese, so that may explains this some what fusion style. It has just open a little more than a week. The staffs and I chatted for quiet a while.

                                                            I ordered the Dan Dan Noodle and the Shredded Pork with Long Horn Pepper. I ate some and took the rest home. The Dan Dan Noodle has enough heat and the Szechuan peppercorn. However, It is noticeably sweet, and has much fewer oil than other places. The Shredded Pork Long Hot Pepper is barely spicy hot -- notice the lack of hot peppers compare to those from E Mei and Four River (scroll up to see E Mei and Four Rivers' photos from my original post). Red King 2's Shredded Pork with Long Horn Pepper also has significantly less oil unlike E Mei's. See E Mei's photo again:


                                                            Red King and Red King 2 may better fit your palate. Good luck hunting. :)

                                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                              Thanks CK, when l get back from Armenia l will give it a go.

                                                              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                <when l get back from Armenia>

                                                                Nice. Have a good trip

                                                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                                  Do both of the Red King restaurants have the same menu ?
                                                                  Amongst other things will always order Dong Bo pork

                                                                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                    fyi dong po rou is not a sichuan dish, its a shanghainese dish

                                                                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                      Lau is correct. Dong Bo Pork (东坡肉) is not a Szechuan dish. Red Kings 1 claims to be Szechuan + Shanghainese cuisines restaurant, whereas Red Kings 2 claims to be Szechuan (only) restaurant. Menus from the both restaurants are different in this respect.

                                                                      I believe Red King 1 has Dong Bo Pork, but I don't remember seeing Dong Bo Pork at Red King 2 -- I could be wrong.

                                                                      (Unfortunately, I just cleaned up my place last week and toss their menus)

                                                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                                        Thanks, l knew it was not Szechuan just yummy.

                                                                        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                          it is one of my fav shanghainese dishes when done right

                                                                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                            :) Just don't eat too much. :D (yes, it is very tasty)

                                                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                                              Ok l am a moron, went to Red King tonight, not RK 2, but RK. When l walked in l realized l had been there two or three times before. Yes the service people are helpful, almost too helpful and we ordered 4-5 things, the soup dumplings were spot on, the Hot & Sour had cornstarch thickener. The Dong Po was cooked perfectly but also had cornstarch thickener, was not too sweet but with no buns as l had read in another review. My son had a fish with hot pepper dish that was perfect.
                                                                              My issue, Christ l always have issues, was other than takeout we were alone, l remembered that was why l stopped going before.
                                                                              We had parked on Vine and when walking back to the car we passed at least four places that were packed like Wong Wong and David's Mai Lai, why RK gets no respect l do not know.

                                                                              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                                <My issue, Christ l always have issues, was other than takeout we were alone>

                                                                                :) I know. It is not a very popular place, which is why I am surprised that they opened another one.

                                                                                <Wong Wong and David's Mai Lai, why RK gets no respect l do not know.>

                                                                                Wong wong, Ting Wong, M-Kee are all Cantonese fast food style restaurants. Low budget street foods, but tasty. David's Mai Lai Wah is really gear toward last night food. Red Kings and Red Kings 2 are, in my opinion, Cantonese version of Szechuan foods, which is why it is less oily and less spicy. This, in turns, push many patrons away.

                                                                                As long as you like it, then it is fine.

                                                      4. I am wondering if anyone has ever tried Szechuan House in Hamilton, NJ (near Trenton). I think it is awesome and very authentic but I don't have much of a point of reference, since when I eat in Chinatown I'm more likely to go to Dim Sum Garden since I can't get that kind of food near Bucks County.

                                                        3 Replies
                                                        1. re: sadiefox

                                                          Well, when did you try Szechuan House? The original Szechuan House was sold many years ago, and the owner and the head chef... went to Chinatown and opened up E-Mei. The current Szechuan House is under a new ownership. Unfortunately, I have not had it after it was sold. I know that there was some complaints during the first few months after the ownership transferred, but I heard it is much better now. Again, I have not personally been back.

                                                          Yes, the original Szechuan House is considered to be authentic by people who are from China.

                                                          1. re: sadiefox

                                                            I've been to Szechuan House a few times and, based on what I've tried so far, I have to say I'd rather drive to Chinatown or make it myself if I'm craving Szechuan food. The usual caveat about potentially not having ordered the right things applies. Also, my taste in Szechuan food runs toward the Taiwanese-influenced variety, so YMMV.

                                                            The items I've tried, not all of which are Szechuan dishes, are:

                                                            Shredded pork with garlic sauce (魚香肉絲)
                                                            Bean vermicelli w/ minced pork (螞蟻上樹)
                                                            Double sautéed pork with Szechuan sauce (四川回鍋肉)
                                                            Sautéed water spinach w/ garlic (蒜炒空心菜)
                                                            Sautéed Chinese squash homestyle (清炒絲瓜)
                                                            Wonton w/ roasted chili vinaigrette (紅油抄手)
                                                            Beef noodles Szechuan style (川味牛肉麵)

                                                            The best one was the Chinese squash, which is not really a Szechuan dish. In general, I found their dishes to be overly salty, garlicky, and oily, and just...not quite right, somehow.

                                                            But I really want to like Szechuan House, just because it's less of a hike than going to Chinatown for me, so I'll probably give it another shot sometime.

                                                            1. re: msiangal

                                                              Thanks, was wondering what others thought. I have enjoyed my meals at Szechuan House, and generally go every couple of months or so.

                                                              I like the beef tendon, dried tofu, and mixed mushroom cold appetizers. Also the Chingquing Spicy Chicken and Fish with Sour Cabbage Casserole are really good. I like the Dan Dan noodles too and the bean vermicelli with minced pork.

                                                          2. We were in Philly for a few days last week on business, and based on what I read here, opted for Emei on Friday night. We ordered two dishes--lamb In cumin, and jumbo shrimp in garlic sauce. (We like it hot, and got a bit more than we bargained for in the shrimp dish). In any event, both dishes were outstanding, and, without having had an opportunity to try Four Rivers for comparison purposes, would return to Emei in a heartbeat. BTW, while I have seen a lot of mixed reviews on these boards re Han Dynasty, a friend of ours whose tastes run similar to ours' went to the Han Dynasty in University City, and said it was excellent.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: albinoni

                                                              Thanks for the reviews. I have had the lamb in cumin (or was it beef in cumin?), and I like this dish a lot. I don't think I have the shrimp in garlic sauce. I have only been to Han Dynasty in the Old City. Thanks.

                                                            2. Went to Four Rivers the other day and something was just not right. The kung po chicken I got was not the same. It had a watered down flavor even though the ingredients were mostly the same. My instincts started to tingle but I chalked it up to a bad day in the kitchen. Then my spider senses began to pick up other things that were wrong. The Chinese blackboard menu was not there. I asked about it and the guy pointed to it in back. It was taken down. I asked to see the menu. It is completely different. Uh oh. Panicking I googled and found out on Yelp. The owners have sold the place!! Apparently they have moved on to a new spot but no one knows where! We have to find out! So I wanted to tell everyone heads up Four Rivers is no more. RIP.

                                                              6 Replies
                                                              1. re: dalovin

                                                                Really? That is unfortunately. If anyone finds out the new location, then it may be useful (assuming it is still close by). Thanks for the heads-up.

                                                                1. re: dalovin

                                                                  Thanks, I walked by there a while ago during dinner hours and they were closed when they should have been open, I guess this might be why. I hope they resurface soon.

                                                                  1. re: dalovin

                                                                    Went to 4 Rivers for lunch aboot a week ago, the menu and the staff were both different...RIP

                                                                      1. re: arancini4

                                                                        Thanks for the great link. How do you know they are the same owners/chef/management?

                                                                        1. re: cwdonald

                                                                          Oh, I was just about the ask the same question, then I saw the photos on facebook. This CHUlicious is definitely own by the previous owner and run by the head-chef from Four Rivers.


                                                                          This definitely means Four Rivers as we know it is gone. (It was one of the older restaurants in Chinatown with continuous management).

                                                                          P.S.: Kind of sad because it is kind of our of my way now. Love to visit this new place, but I don't want to drive over there just for the restaurant.

                                                                    1. Yummy Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House has been renamed to Spice C Hand Drawn Noodle House and for an extra $1.30 their soup can be made Szechuan style: mild, medium or firing. Medium was perfect for me. Here's their menu: http://www.spicecnoodle.com/menu.html

                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                      1. re: discndav

                                                                        Which soup or soups have you had and did you like them all?

                                                                        1. re: mscoffee1

                                                                          beef noodle szechuan style is the one I was raving about.