The China you probably know—if you're the sort to get your news from The Colbert Report, anyway—is one of dominance in ping-pong and wind-turbine manufacturing, where the internet is censored, videos are pirated, and everyone rides around on electric bicycles. But there's another part of China that we in Minnesota are just now getting to know: a cuisine that has been around for thousands of years before we finally started getting a taste of it.
For years the Twin Cities Chinese food scene was dominated by Leeann Chin's fried rice and sesame chicken, dishes based on traditional fare but modified to satisfy Midwestern preferences for sugar and fat. Recently, though, we've seen more and more authentic Szechuan restaurants cropping up, including two new branches of the Tea House, Tian Jin in Chanhassen, and, in just the past few months, Szechuan in Roseville and Grand Szechuan in Bloomington.
Szechuan cuisine originated in southwestern China and is notable for its bold, pungent—and often spicy—flavors. Both Szechuan and Grand Szechuan serve their titular fare alongside all the usual Chinese-American mainstays. Each protein—chicken, beef, pork, duck—is offered in a seemingly endless combination of preparations, causing the menus to read like a math lesson on factorials.
Szechuan, located in a Snelling Avenue strip mall in the former home of China Jen, is the product of first-time restaurateur Jessie Wong, who hired chef Dou Jian, previously of New York City's notable Wu Liang Ye restaurant, to run the kitchen. Grand Szechuan's chef, Luo Guanghe, has a similarly impressive résumé, having formerly run the kitchens at the Plymouth Tea House and Little Szechuan in St. Paul. He started the new restaurant with his son, Dan, and several other former Little Szechuan staff after they parted ways with their previous employer. Though Grand Szechuan is also in a strip mall, the ambiance and service at both restaurants are more refined than their utilitarian real estate might suggest.
Designed to attract a wide range of diners, Szechuan and Grand Szechuan offer everything from mainstream fare such as cashew chicken and beef with broccoli to lesser-seen authentic Chinese dishes containing tendon, tripe, and blood. For those whose comfort level lies somewhere between those two, I can highly recommend three must-order dishes to keep you from feeling bored—or squeamish.
You like fried chicken, right? Then try the Szechuan staple Chung King, in which nuggets of fried meat are buried in a flurry of glossy red chiles. The ratio appears to be nearly 50-50 peppers to chicken, but you can curate your own bites to calibrate the dish to your spice tolerance. Both restaurants do a stellar job with this dish: The chicken is crunchy on the outside, kissed with a slightly sweet soy-garlic sauce, and brushed with the dry, toasty heat of the chiles to leave a soft buzz on the lips. Chung King has twice fried chicken's attitude—and half its greasy-fingered mess.
The Dan Dan, or peddler's noodles, is another famous Szechuan dish. Thin, chewy noodles are boiled to order, then doused in a fiery sauce made with scallions, little nubbins of ground pork (or mock meat), sesame seeds, soy sauce, chili oil, and, at the Roseville eatery, Chinese pickled vegetables. Think of Dan Dan noodles as pad Thai with more pluck—and a bowl will set you back only five bucks.
Tea-smoked duck is another Szechuan staple in which a whole duck is typically marinated, steamed, smoked with black tea, and then basted with or fried in oil to crisp its skin. Honestly, I've never been a big fan of the dish, as the duck sometimes has a putty-like texture and a slightly livery tang, which I experienced at Grand Szechuan. So instead, I'd recommend making a detour to northeast China and ordering Szechuan's whole Peking duck. It can take about 30 minutes to prepare and costs 30 bucks, but it's perfect for sharing and well worth the wait. Our waiter arrived with an enormous platter of duck, body split and laid flat, and then deftly used two spoons to wrap slices of the meat in paper-thin house-made pancakes with hoisin sauce and vegetable garnishes. (When the restaurant is very busy, our server said, he lets customers go DIY on the wrap assembly, but the extra time he took with us helped build our anticipation.) The duck meat was rich and tender, accented by the dark pluminess of the sauce, the cool freshness of the laser-cut shreds of cucumbers and scallions, and the crispy bits of fried skin. I like to think of it as the ultimate gourmand's burrito.
Beyond those three dishes are literally hundreds more to try. At Grand Szechuan I found the gingery dumplings more likeable than either the pork ears or the bean jelly appetizers. The last two had bland flavors that reminded me a little of lutefisk—the jelly had the same slippery texture; the ears, even when sliced ultra-thin, had a chewy cartilage mouthfeel—but they were designed to slip down the hatch with a little chili oil instead of cream sauce or butter.
I'd skip the sliced beef short ribs, which have a nice, meaty flavor, but I prefer a punchier marinade used in the Korean version, galbi. An off-the-menu dish our server suggested, of sole fillets in scallion-flecked ginger sauce, had a somewhat gelatinous texture but made for a nice respite from the spicier stuff. My favorite Grand Szechuan dish was an uncommon one: Milky Crispy Shrimp, in which the briny curls were batter fried and coated in a sweet, milky sauce. It was part seafood, part glazed doughnut, and made for a strange but delightful equation.
At Szechuan in Roseville, the Szechuan boiled beef and fish fillet in chili I tried were most memorable for their enormous portions, as they arrived in bowls capable of serving at least six people. The contents themselves, with their tender proteins and bean sprouts with a mild heat, were less remarkable, but that may have been due to our server's insistence on toning down the spice in spite of our protests.
In the end, I preferred several of Szechuan's vegetable and tofu dishes. Szechuan green beans are always a favorite, and these were textbook: The perfectly crisp, grassy strands were slightly blackened and glossed with hot, savory oil. A lightly salted stir-fry possessed similar snap with its medley of carrots, asparagus, water chestnuts, and pretty, snowflake-like lotus root discs.
For a little textural contrast, Ma Po Tofu douses the silky soy cubes in chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns, whose fiery menthol has a woodsy, eucalyptus-like flavor and leaves behind a numbness that suggests your mouth may have just been treated for overuse after strenuous sports activity. The sensation is unlike that of any other spice, and it's one that many Minnesotans, says Szechuan owner Jessie Wong, have been eager to try. In fact, Wong says she's been impressed by how many non-Chinese customers have been putting themselves in their servers' hands and asking them to select dishes for them. "A lot of people are very brave," she notes.