Saturday, October 27, 2012

Little Szechuan – St. Paul, MN

D.Rough and I have been meaning to try this place. Whenever people talk about good Chinese food in the Twin Cities, inevitably Little Szechuan comes up. It’s ranked number 1 on Trip Advisor for Chinese food in the area, for one thing. But the main reason we thought it worth trying is that it is ranked in CNN’s “50 Best Chinese Restaurants in the United States.” That’s a pretty big statement in our book, so we popped over for a visit.

The outside of the building is a little unassuming, especially on University Avenue, right in the middle of the Light Rail construction zone. There’s a large parking lot behind the building, so take advantage of that.

The inside is pretty spacious and bright. It’s filled with a few four-top tables and a few larger round tables for 8-10 with lazy susans in the middle. And most of these tables were filled. I found it interesting that the larger tables were filled with Asian groups sharing everything on the table and the smaller tables were filled with non-Asian with everyone eating their own dishes and not sharing. Just a cultural observation.

The menu here at Little Szechuan is thorough. It also has photos for almost every dish on the menu. And not little cheap grainy snapshots. There are professional quality photos in this tome. The very last page is a section called “Traditionals” which is where the boring things like fried rice and sweet and sour chicken are at. Do yourself a favor and look through the front portion of the 15-page menu. Everything looks delicious and non-standard. Unless you’ve been to China – then these dishes look quite familiar. I know everyone and their mom says that THEIR Chinese restaurant is authentic, but this one can be vouched for by actual Chinese people. There are all kinds of things you’ll never see on a menu at “your” place. Duck feet, pig ears, beef tendon, jelly fish, tongue, tripe, lotus root, and lots of things with spicy whole fish. These are the kinds of things I saw in China.

D.Rough had never had Peking Duck before, so we thought we’d order one of those (we actually got the Honey Duck – just a half duck). And people recommended the Ma Po Tofu, so we got that. We needed an appetizer of some sort, and we heard the Dan Dan Noodles were delicious, so we got that. And a couple of beers, since we also heard this place isn’t afraid to use the heat. Ohhhh, man, we were excited!

The Dan Dan Noodles came out first. They looked simple, but had a surprising amount of flavor – most of it being garlic. There is a sauce at the bottom of the bowl, so be sure to stir it up to coat your thick noodles. There is also a bit of ground pork on the top of the noodles when it’s served – it is really delicious and again, stir it all up and make sure it’s evenly distributed. As long as you don’t mind garlic, these noodles are quite good. I’ve had them at a few places and these are the best I’ve had herein the US. There’s a lot of flavor, but the flavors are pretty simple, not complex and jumbled. I like that.

Then the duck arrived. It looked and smelled fantastic. I’ve had Peking Duck a few times, both in the US and in China. In fact, I had Peking Duck at Quanjude in the Wangfujing District in Beijing – it’s one of the famous places for top-notch roast duck (I’m not bragging, I’m just saying I’ve been around the duck block), and a few other places around China that I can’t remember the names of. The Peking Duck at Little Szechuan holds up pretty well against these places. I’d put it in the top places I’ve had it in the US. (It loses against the Peking Gourmet Inn in Fall Church VA – also on the list of 50 best Chinese Restaurants in the US – where numerous presidents have gotten their Peking Duck fix). The skin is crispy and delicious with just a faint hint of honey. The duck meat itself is really delicious as well. You are given a plateful of lettuce, onions, and duck sauce, as well as four or five wrappers to make your own small duck rolls. I’m glad D.Rough liked this, since that means we can have it a lot. My only minor complaint is you don’t get to watch the chefs slice up the duck in front of you, like some other restaurants – it’s a very impressive process and adds to the experience. I read a few reviews of people complaining about the price of this – it was $16-ish. That’s sooo reasonable and I’m not sure why people would complain about that. It’s a serious upscale dish. Worth it (and delicious!) at Little Szechuan.

The Ma Po Tofu wasn’t what we thought we were getting. It is cubes of soft tofu in chili oil. Thankfully, it is also delicious. Again, I had this exact dish in Beijing and it’s just like it is there (well, maybe I trust what’s in it a little bit more, here in the U.S.). The oil is exactly what I’m saying – oil. It isn’t a broth or a gravy. It’s chili oil. Not painfully hot chili oil, but still made with chilies – and the flavor was fantastic. Don’t get “oil” mixed up with “grease” though, it’s totally different. The tofu is the softest I’ve ever had. I guess I’m used to much more firm tofu, since this almost jiggled. However, with the flavor of the chili oil mixing in with the tofu, it was quite good. We were glad we got it, but we honestly started to get full about halfway through. We kept talking about how we just assumed the tofu would be fried cubes, since everything in American Chinese restaurants is fried. So, the following afternoon, we took out our leftovers, drained off the chili oil, rolled the cubes in flour and fried them right up and finished if off. Honestly, it was delicious both ways!

I didn’t even mention the huge bowl of rice we got to split between the both of us. This is the biggest bowl of rice I’ve seen for two people ever. Normally, you get a small saucer with a mound of rice on it. We ate as much as we could, then took home the left overs and made enough fried rice to have three meals for both of us. Serious amounts of rice.

I’m glad we got to try this place. We had fantastic food and the servers were really friendly and helpful if we had questions. The reports are correct on the portion sizes – make sure you under order and you’ll still get full. The heat is there, so also be warned if you have a Minnesota palate, drink lots of water. It IS slightly more than your dive-y hole in the wall Chinese restaurant, but the food quality, selection, and atmosphere are worth paying a couple dollars extra – I promise. I’ve only been to a few upscale Chinese restaurants and this was an impressive showing. There’s a reason it’s on the Top 50 list, and the only Chinese restaurant in Minnesota to make the list.

Top 5 things about Little Szechuan
1. Peking Duck (Honey Duck)
2. Dan Dan Noodles
3. Ma Pa Tofu
4. Impressive and thorough menu
5. Fantastically nice staff

Bottom 5 things
1. They don’t cut up the Peking Duck in front of you
2. Construction traffic is brutal – there is a spacious parking lot in back though
3. It IS a little bit more expensive – don’t complain about it
4. Some of the menu items you’ll be taking a gamble on, since there aren’t descriptions (you CAN ask the servers though)
5. Nothing else is a downside to this place. Go here!!!


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