We ate at Szechuan Spice for the first time in January and I noted in my review then that we would be back soon. Life being what it is, and more specifically, our devotion to Grand Szechuan being what it is, it took us almost exactly 10 months to make it back. This time we were accompanied by friends (two adults and their small kids). It was again a very nice meal, on the whole. Nothing really jumped out as special but everything was quite good. This time we ordered largely from the “Chef’s Recommend” menu—a separate, smaller sheet that you should ask for if you don’t automatically receive it; we were given it without asking on this occasion but not on our prior visit.
Whether it was because I was not as convincing this time when asking for everything but the stuff for the kids to be nice and spicy, or because our friends are so visibly Canadian, I don’t know, but nothing passed over the medium-spicy threshold. On a cold and windy November day in Minnesota, however, it’s hard to complain. Hot food that makes you sweat is great in warm, humid climates (as, for example, in much of Sichuan—Chengdu is at more or less the same latitude as New Delhi) but stepping into the Minnesota winter with a sweating scalp is not a nice thing (I swear I remember my hair freezing to my scalp while changing our first-born’s diaper in Little Szechuan’s parking lot back in 2009).
A couple of the things we ate were also a little different from versions we’ve encountered in the rest of our experience of Sichuan cuisine (which, while not trivial, does not extend to eating in China). I am very, very far from being an expert on Sichuan cuisine and so have no desire to draw any conclusions from these differences. Sichuan is a very large province and I’m sure there’s a great deal of variation even in kitchens in the same regions within it (as there is within sub-regions in seemingly granular regional cuisines in India). Take something like dan dan noodles, for example. Fuchsia Dunlop’s scrupulously researched Land of Plenty, an indispensable resource for the non-Chinese reading home cook, lists versions that are quite different from each other; and, of course, it’s a street snack—the odds that different vendors wouldn’t have different takes on it are poor.
So, I bring this up not to suggest the possibility that there’s something “wrong” with Szechuan Spice’s versions of a couple of the things we ate, but to assert quite the opposite: that it’s important when writing/eating from a position of relative cultural ignorance to not theorize about authenticity—a concept that is usually only a little less vague even back in the heart of the “home” culture—or to speak too broadly about what things should taste like. A lot of Sichuan dining in the US or even a few meals on a trip to Sichuan are not really a basis for anything but the most provisional expertise. The more important questions are whether the food seems dumbed down (in terms of ingredients or flavours) and whether it tastes good. At both our meals at Szechuan Spice the answer to the first question was negative and the answer to the second question was positive. That’s good enough for me. (I’ll add, however, the obvious rider that even with the lowered stakes the first question is not as easy to answer as the second.)
Click on an image below to see larger, captioned photos of what we ate (four adults, four small kids):
All of this (and a couple of sodas) came to almost exactly $100 with tax and tip, and generated a decent amount of leftovers. I think we’ll be back in less than 10 months next time.