Little Szechuan brings fiery Chinese to St. Louis Park
Little Szechuan's menu offers something for both the safe and adventurous diner. Take the tour.
It's always great to see a restaurant that is locally owned and operated get so popular that it opens a second location, especially when that restaurant is known for phenomenal food. But it's often a bit of a crapshoot in terms of what to expect from the new branch. Will it rely completely on the reputation of its predecessor and create an exact replica? Or take a riskier approach and attempt to strike out on its own, perhaps by offering a modified menu, later hours, or live music? Much of the time, the route the new restaurant takes is dictated, wisely, by location, and the new Little Szechuan in St. Louis Park's West End is no exception.
If you're a fan of Little Szechuan on University Avenue in St. Paul, it's probably because of the close to 100 uniquely tongue-numbing dishes of authentic Szechuan cuisine that have gained a strong following over the past five years, and likely not because of the ambiance. The St. Louis Park location seems to be upping its game in the decor department, with a swankier, more low-lit concept. Plush, high-backed chairs replace the basic vinyl ones. Intimate booths are flocked with filmy textiles. A rather formal host receives guests in a grandiose entryway with ornately carved walls. The humble cafe near a Salvation Army, it's not.
In keeping with catering to a more upscale, post-work crowd, the new Little Szechuan has a hopping happy hour with good drink deals and well-chosen snacks: crisp chicken wings that elicited that back-of-the-throat, slow-burning sensation, and Szechuan potato fries, a log-cabin-style stack of thick planks of potato, slathered in a hot, sweet, and salty oil. The place has a few beers on tap, more bottled options, a decent wine list ranging from California and Oregon to Italy and Spain, and something you don't see at too many Chinese restaurants: a full bar. The cocktail menu includes a drink called the BLT. Made with spicy and subtle Bulleit bourbon, bright and sour limoncello, and a splash of tonic, it has a boldness and creativity that show Little Szechuan can compete with its bigger, and for the time being more popular, neighbors: Crave, Cooper Irish Pub, and yes, even Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill.
Some items are notably missing from the St. Louis Park menu. Jelly Fish in Scallion Sauce, Quick Fried Pork Kidney, and even Stir-Fried Pea Tips appear only on the St. Paul menu, perhaps a sign of the owners thinking they need to coddle the suburban crowd. But they pay great attention to small details. Servers mark their tables with correct serving ware before entrées arrive. Leftovers (oh, there will be leftovers) are packed for you. Decorative edible flourishes accentuate the already colorful plates of food. And best of all, your meal starts with a small bowl of wide, crispy deep-fried noodles, an apple-y sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, and the sentence you will be very thankful to hear as you delve into traditionally fiery Szechuan dishes: "Can I refill your water? I think you're going to need it."
You are going to need it. The Szechuan style of cooking is renowned for its liberal use of garlic, chiles, and Szechuan peppercorns that are the source of the signature málà, the tingling or numbing sensation that people of this region regard as a sixth taste. One of Little Szechuan's best examples of málà was the Couples Beef, a bowl of sliced beef, tripe, and other beef offal, softened in a chile-infused oil. As the name would lead to you believe, it's a dish meant to share, but what the picture menu failed to communicate was that this dish, like the beef many couples have with each other, is served cold. The result was not a particularly pleasing experience texturally—something like the chewiest bits of a leftover game roast—but the numbing agents worked to open the palate to a whole new world of flavors. That was also true in the Taste of Szechuan, a dish of crispy fried chicken, spring onions, broccoli, and plenty of roughly chopped dried chile peppers, and the Chung King Chili Shrimp, which had a surprisingly sweet deep-fried shell around them.
Keen to give us a taste of as many representative Szechuan dishes as possible, our server recommended the Twice-Cooked Pork. It's first boiled in water with ginger and salt, then pan-fried. Since they use belly meat, it was not entirely unlike having a big plate of thick-cut bacon with bell peppers—incredibly rich, but delectable. The Tea-Smoked Duck had a well-balanced, almost astringent flavor but was disappointingly dry and lacked the crispy skin on the breast that the complicated cooking method is meant to achieve. Homestyle Tofu with black beans, onions, cabbage, and a smooth, piquant sauce was the Szechuan equivalent of mashed potatoes: silky, warm, comforting, and addictively savory. Sizzling Rice with Three Delicacies was conceptually ambitious. Four flat squares were plated like strange, savory Rice Krispies Treats and came direct from a dip in the deep fryer to our table. Our server then dumped over it a mixture of shrimp, beef, chicken, and vegetables, in a lackluster and cloyingly sweet brown sauce, effectively ruining the dish.
For those who like their eating with a little less adventure, the St. Louis Park location offers a one-page menu of "Traditionals," including appetizers and entrées more familiar to the American palate. Unfortunately most of these missed the mark. The giant, McNugget-sized pieces of thickly breaded chicken in the Sesame Chicken were flavorless inside and out and covered in an overly sweet and overly dyed, unidentifiable red sauce. The only presence of any sesame flavor came from the handful of seeds pitifully scattered on top. Run-of-the-mill potstickers had heavy wrappers and under-seasoned filling, but they made a nice vehicle for the spicy dipping sauce. The egg rolls were serviceable, with a very fresh-tasting, peppery cabbage filling. Cream cheese wontons were playfully presented standing upright, like little pope's hats. The popular chicken lettuce wraps were confusingly placed on the Szechuan side of the menu, but with a heavy Vietnamese influence they weren't totally at home there either. Far, far more confusing was the inclusion of tiramisu with Kahlua, carrot cake, and something called Strawberry La Bomba on the dessert menu. Our server pointed out the one Chinese dessert on the list, a Corn Pizza with Diced Pear. It came out smelling almost exactly like a funnel cake ... with corn. As our server set the plate down she said, "I watched the chef make it." We were possibly the only people who had ever ordered this dish from her. "He takes all the corn and plops it in the deep fryer. Then he puts sugar on top. And sprinkles." And that's exactly how it tastes.
"That's the only one we have now," she told us in reference to the unique dessert, "but there are going to be a lot more of the Chinese desserts and other things soon." For the sake of St. Louis Park residents who are looking for something out of the ordinary without having to drive off the beaten path, we certainly hope so.
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