I caught a 1935 comedy on television the other night: If You Could Only Cook. It was one of those jobs in which a multimillionaire pauses on a park bench, falls for a newly homeless blonde, and is thus persuaded to pose as her husband so they can take the only jobs in town, that of the married cook and butler for a big-hearted, food-loving mafioso. To audition for the job the blonde makes a real high-class sauce, and to show her refinement and expertise, she explains how a naked clove of garlic must be waved exactly six inches above the sauce in question, no higher, no lower, and then set carefully aside, lest the volatile garlic contaminate the sauce with its potent, you know, garlic. Sound like your kind of sauce? Then stay the hell away from Little Szechuan.
Why? Little Szechuan isn't one of those generic Chinese restaurants that puts the word "Szechuan" in its name for marketing purposes, oh no no no. Little Szechuan is the real deal, a Szechuan specialist that uses chili peppers the way blizzards use snow. This is how Szechuan food should be, for the cuisine of southeast central China, the food of Chongqing and Chengdu, is most renowned for taking food beyond the mere mortal tastes of sour, salty, sweet, spicy, and savory and straight into ma la—numbing and burning. For instance, I ordered my fried cucumbers Szechuan style ($4.50) "mild to medium," and the glossy pale beauties arrived so thick with black-red dried chili peppers that they looked like a landscape of new crocus buds in snow—I think if I had ordered them "hot" I would have gotten enough chili peppers to literally propel myself through the time-space continuum back to 1935 to taste what a sauce is like when garlic is held six inches above it. And yes, those cucumbers were unspeakably delicious in the way that only great Szechuan cooking could make them: They tasted like gelatin made of whisper-green silk, like dew, like a mist of cucumber perfume sprayed in a cool wind, and it was chili peppers that made them so by dampening their plain, starchy taste and focusing and trumpeting their subtle perk. I think Little Szechuan is the best thing to happen to St. Paul in years.
You have to get the Szechuan menu, of course. There's a black menu with the real Szechuan deal, and a green menu full of sweet-and-sour pork and whatnot—get the real menu. Order the dan-dan noodles ($4.50)—long, chewy wheat noodles dressed with a handful of pork crumbles, scallions, and spicy red chili oil; you simply must order the dan-dan noodles so you can explore the subtle play of peasant-hearty, rib-sticking noodle and electric spark of chili. If you are with a large party, order at least one bowl of dan-dan noodles for every two or three people, or there will be fights. Try something in the house-classic "red spicy oil"—perhaps the pickled bamboo shoots ($5.95), in which the crisp, salty wisps resemble collapsible television antennae—to understand what chili peppers are like in their plain clothes, when they are just a veil of fire.
Progress to fire plus tingle, with something like the Ma-Po tofu ($8.95), a wildly non-vegetarian dish in which cubes of creamy tofu are stewed with chili peppers; pork crumbles; winy, fermented black beans; and haunting Szechuan pepper (a tingling spice)—this is tofu as alive and popping as a fish on a dock. Finally, move on to something truly ma la like the beef and tofu cooked with "spicy tasty broth" ($10.95), in which strips of beef arrive in a bubbling cauldron of blood-red sauce which both seethes with the knife-point of chili fire and burbles with the numbing tingle of notes from Szechuan pepper, star anise, and ginger. Each bite reveals flavors as complex as a rain forest and as painful as a great massage. Be sure to set a few vegetable dishes on the table, and a few beers, to blunt the heat: The stir-fried pea tips ($10.95) were as bright as emeralds, and as fresh and light as pea shoots should always be. A choy ($8.95), the thin-leaved, grassy cabbage, is served as it should be, generously and plainly.
If you have been frightened off from Little Szechuan by all this talk of fire, please know that some of the great things here are spicy in ways other than numbing and burning. One must-order without a heck of a lot of heat is the cumin lamb ($12.95): paper-thin slices of lamb cooked with celery, cumin, and coriander seeds, served with lots of fresh cilantro. It's as sprightly and lively as a song played on pan pipes, and, oddly, has a strange, haunting, almost Turkish air to its grassy, mountain-meadow spice. The kung-pao chicken ($9.95) is a gorgeous version of that much-maligned dish: High-heat roasted peanuts achieve a nutty profundity, and are paired with wok-blackened chili peppers and tender chicken. The thin-sliced beef short ribs with garlic ($13.95) are barbecue finger-food that anyone living takeout distance from Little Szechuan is sure to become addicted to. For this dish, short ribs cut about a 16th of an inch thin are rendered sweet and pliable through a sugary soy-garlic marinade, then grilled at super-high heat so that they become crisp and caramelized—they arrive at the table so sweet, so savory, so crisp that you end up in one of those carnivorous frenzies of trying to eat the whole plate of them at once. Or at least I did.
In short: You gotta get in there. As is customary in Chinese restaurants, the place really pulls out all the stops for weekend lunches, which is when you'll find all kinds of specials made with celebration-appropriate ingredients, like pork feet and large whole fish. If you want some of the best Chinese food Minnesota's ever had, get in there with a big group for a Saturday lunch. Even more happily, however, Little Szechuan, unlike most Minnesota Chinese restaurants, doesn't set out second-best fare on weeknights, and, to gild the lily, they offer a full beer and wine list, and servers who know the menu in and out.
Oh, and I almost forgot something: The restaurant itself looks like someplace you'd want to visit: The walls are as red as the lips of a starlet, and the black, twisting light fixtures take Italy as their design lodestar, not Frogtown. On one of my many joyful visits, I said a quiet "thank you" to the brief candle of an Asian-fusion restaurant that filled this big room between Dale and the state Capitol with lots of style and sass, and then promptly vanished. St. Paul needed a real Szechuan restaurant far more than it needed a place that puts cilantro on top of the lobster bisque—in fact, Minneapolis needed it too, as the close proximity of I-94 means that lots of Mill City residents are leaping the imaginary barbed wire that separates them from the brick belle of the east. You don't believe it? It's true, I've seen it. I guess every era has its miracles: Sometimes the unlikely-looking guy on the next bench is actually a millionaire taking in the night air, and sometimes the new Szechuan joint is just what you need to perk up a winter with adventure, joy, and fire.