We ate at Szechuan Impression on our trip to Los Angeles last winter and at the end of my review I noted that I expected we’d be back on our trip in the summer. Well, this came true almost immediately upon our arrival in Los Angeles. We got in on the evening of July 1; we ate lunch at Szechuan Impression on July 2. Joining us for lunch were Sku and his family, with whom we eat on every trip, and with whom we love eating (as they are one of very few families whose attitude to eating out is exactly like ours, that is to say, excessive). Since our last trip Szechuan Impression has opened a second branch but we made a return to the original in Alhambra. I am glad to say that expansion has not had any negative effects on the kitchen: our meal was as good as the previous, and that one was one of the best Sichuan meals we’d ever had (and better than the Michelin starred one we ate in Hong Kong a few weeks later).
There have been some small changes in the restaurant. Some aspects of the decor seem new: some of the smaller tables and chairs seem to have been switched out; the tables now have placemats (which, unfortunately, have ads on them—a tacky counterpoint to the general attractiveness of the space); and the menu has been reformatted (and some of the translational awkwardness has been addressed). And, alas, there’s still no beer. This concludes the negative section of this review.
This was Sku and family’s first time at Szechuan Impression and so we mixed up getting completely new things and some things that we’d really liked at the previous meal so that there’d be some guaranteed crowd-pleasers. As it happens, almost everything was a huge hit (though our order was not the most balanced). We also ordered a couple of things that we’d all eaten at Chengdu Taste (and we had opinions on the relative quality of the two restaurants that some may find controversial—more on this below).
What did we eat?
- Farm Chicken in Chilli Oil: This was a repeat from our first meal and it was dynamite again.
- Classic “Potato Strips on Street Corner”: Ditto. And I really wish Grand Szechuan in MN made their version this way.
- Wonton Chicken Soup: This was for the kids but I can tell you that the chicken broth and the pork wontons were excellent.
- “Legcrossingly Yum” Beef: This is one of the variations of #28 on the menu, “Leshan Beef Combinations”. This was just excellent. Thin slices of beef and radish in a wonderful mild broth reminiscent of the Korean sullungtang; it is served with condiments on the side so you can add heat to it as you prefer. I tried it both ways and frankly I preferred it with just the cilantro and green onions. Also a huge hit with the kids.
- Twice-Cooked Pork: This classic dish was one of a few listed on the hand-written “Seasonal Specials” page at the back of the menu and was recommended by our server to fill the pork gap in our order. Nothing exciting but as good a rendition of the classic as I’ve ever had.
- Lamb on Toothpicks: Those who’ve eaten at Chengdu Taste will recognize this (it’s called “Toothpick Mutton” there). Bloody good.
- Lamb Rice Noodle in Casserole: This was the one dish that didn’t do anything for any of us. We couldn’t tell if something had been left out in the seasoning or if this is a genre of dish that fulfills a function that we don’t quite understand. The lamb was cooked well as were the noodles but other than a mild heat there was nothing else going on in the broth. I actually prefer the similar “Lamb in Spicy Soup” at Grand Szechuan in MN.
- Boiled Fish with Rattan Pepper: Another dish we’d all eaten previously at Chengdu Taste (it’s called “boiled fish in green pepper sauce” there) and another that was just utterly excellent here. Between the Sichuan peppercorn explosion, the hot peppers, and the tangy pickled peppers, and the wonderful texture of the “boiled” fish, this summed up so much of what is so distinctive about Sichuan cuisine’s flavours and techniques.
- Mama’s Stewed Handmade Noodles: I don’t know that we were expecting this to also be a noodles in soup/stew dish but it was; fortunately, it was very good. Another mild but flavourful broth (very different from both the wonton chicken soup and the legcrossingly yum beef) and nice texture on the noodles.
- Cinderella’s Pumpkin Rides: Yes, it’s the dish with the silly name. Pumpkin rice cakes with a bit of red bean paste in the interior. Quite nice.
- Fried Rice Cake with Black Sugar: It’s nice to eat with people who when you say, “I can’t decide which of the two desserts to get”, respond with “get them both”. This was deep fried tubular rice cakes sitting on what seemed like a light molasses-based syrup with soy powder over the top.
As I said above, our order was not balanced. The wonton chicken soup was superfluous as the kids loved the “legcrossingly yum” beef (and we all loved the name). And with the lamb rice noodle casserole (which we found blah) and the stewed handmade noodles (which we liked) we had two more soupy dishes, making four in all. With hindsight I would have dropped the wonton soup and the lamb noodle casserole and got their bobo chicken and another pork dish (maybe the “pork trotter dry chilli pot”). Still, it was an excellent meal on the whole. And somehow, despite ordering 11 dishes, we did not generate any leftovers. With tax and tip we paid a total of $154, which is just a screaming deal for what we ate. For context this is just a little over twice what we paid at Gjusta (where we ate the next day) for a couple of sandwiches, two pieces of flatbread and three small selections of smoked fish (and there were eight of us at this meal).
We haven’t eaten at Chengdu Taste in a year, but in our memory this was as good as either of our meals there. Sku and family, who’ve been to Chengdu Taste more recently were clear that they far preferred this meal to any they’ve had there. We all agreed that the dishes we’ve had at both places were at least as good here if not better. To repeat what I said of our previous meal here: the cooking seems more refined, the ingredients seem of a very high quality and there are no crazy lines outside (we got there when they opened at 11.30 and it wasn’t till 12.30 or so that there was any sort of wait, and that not unmanageable). When you add all this to how good almost everything was it’s hard to not say that Szechuan Impression may have pulled ahead of Chengdu Taste. The missus does demur a bit, however, as her favourite dish at Chengdu Taste (the “Flavoured Pork Crura“) is not available here. Accordingly, we will return to Chengdu Taste on our next trip and take its measure again. In the meantime, I can unhesitatingly recommend Szechuan Impression.