Sometime in the last year, Lao Sze Chuan, a Chicago-based mini-empire of Szechuan restaurants, opened a branch in Minneapolis. As I don’t really follow the Twin Cities food media very closely, I missed this. A chance reference to it on Facebook alerted me to its existence recently, and shortly thereafter we descended upon them with a group of friends to see if this was a worthy addition to the Twin Cities’ unexpectedly strong Sichuan scene. Short answer: it is. More annoying answer: it’s nothing very special, however. And while the original bills itself as “the best Chinese restaurant in America”, this one is not the best Sichuan restaurant in the Twin Cities; nor is it, for that matter, the best Sichuan restaurant within a 1/4 mile radius. That award would go to Tea House, which is walking distance from Lao Sze Chuan. The best Sichuan restaurant in the Twin Cities metro area, of course, continues to be Grand Szechuan.
What Lao Sze Chuan undoubtedly is, however, is the most attractive Sichuan restaurant in the Twin Cities metro area. The interior is bright and stylish and if you’re looking for a beautiful room for a good meal, this is the Sichuan restaurant to pick. It’s not as large as Grand Szechuan or even Tea House, but it is bright and has attractive furniture and non-kitschy decor. They also have a large bar area and offer a long cocktail menu—though, based on descriptions, these seem like overly-sweet concoctions. The one major negative in the aesthetic dept. is that the menu is in very tiny print. Make sure to take your reading glasses. (To get a sense of how small the print is, take a look at their online menu: the experience of reading the physical menu is comparable.)
There were 12 of us and so I’d made sure to book a table (they’re on Open Table, which also makes things easier). As it happens, they weren’t full at noon on a Saturday but they had prepared their private’ish party room for us. It has a large round table that can seat 12 (though 10 would probably be more comfortable). Though the restaurant wasn’t full when we were there, it wasn’t empty either. They appear to attract a large number of Chinese students from the U. of Minnesota area (the University is in the general vicinity).
We ordered rather promiscuously. This is what we got:
- Dan dan noodles: This was for the boys and so we asked for it to not be spicy. They enjoyed it.
- Szechuan wontons: We got two orders of the classic wontons in chilli oil. Rather good.
- Five powder beef: Thick slices of cold beef, redolent of five spice. Nice.
- “Never forget” chicken: Perhaps “unforgettable” is what they mean? Anyway, nice enough dish of cold hacked chicken in a chilli oil bath.
- Peanuts with dry bean curd: Cubes of smoked bean curd with peanuts. Not as good as Grand Szechuan’s version. Lots of Sichuan peppercorn on this one.
- House spicy cabbage: Shredded cabbage dressed with chilli oil. Quite good.
- Spicy and sour crystal noodles: This divided the group a bit but both the missus and I quite liked this one. Glass noodles in a vinegary, spicy sauce.
- Mapo tofu: Their default version is sans meat of any kind; in fact, the only non-veg version they have involves fish. Anyway, this was just okay, we thought.
- Dry chilli short ribs: Pork ribs, fried to a nice crisp. Not particularly spicy but very good.
- Lamb with cumin: Also tasty but not as good as Grand Szechuan’s.
- Twice-cooked pork: Their rendition of the classic dish is very good.
- Tony’s 3 chilli chicken: “Tony” is the first name of the executive chef/owner of the group. But despite the rest of the name there is no heat to this dish. Instead there’s a lot of sugar in the batter of the chicken and this quite literally tastes like candy. Too cloying.
- Fish filet with chilli bean sauce: Another Sichuan classic but utterly disappointing here. It too was too sweet, tasting more like a sweet and sour to which a lot of chillies had been added. There was no bean paste flavour at all.
- Eggplant with garlic sauce: I did not eat this but those who did said it was one of the better dishes.
- Szechuan green beans: This was a very good version of the classic but see below for a huge potential problem.
For pictures of the space and the food, please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for more on the green beans situation, service, value etc.
So, what was the problem with the green beans? Well, they almost killed one of our group who is allergic to shrimp. The menu did not say a word about shrimp but it turns out there’s ground, dried shrimp sprinkled over the beans. Luckily, our friend had only had one bite before the missus tasted it and realized it had shrimp in it, and so he got nothing worse than a tickle in his throat. When I drew the server’s attention to it, he noted that the option of the dish we had ordered did not have a tiny green clover next to it to mark it as vegetarian. Now, the names of dishes on the menu are already hard to read, but the descriptions are in tinier print still. Considering the versions with garlic or chilli have those mentioned in the tiny print, they should probably say there’s shrimp explicitly for this option as well. This could have ended badly.
That aside, the service was friendly and present and the food came out at a good clip. Oh yes, as there were a couple of people in the group who’re a little heat-shy, I did not ask for anythng to be made Sichuan spicy, Accordingly, I can tell you that the default level here is hot by Minnesota standards but not especially so.
Counting our boys as one adult, this came to $21.50/head. Not bad for a lot of food and comparable to the competition—though we had no leftovers. As for overall quality, while with the exception of the fish, everything was at least decent, very little rose to the level of being notable; for the two of us, only the spicy-sour crystal noodles, in fact. Of course, it’s a large menu and there’s much else that we have not tried. I could see coming back again if we’re in the vicinity and Tea House is busy, but for our regular Sichuan cravings, we couldn’t justify the extra 20 minutes each way to eat here over going to Grand Szechuan. As with Tea House, those closer to Lao Sze Chuan may disagree.
Next up from the Twin Cities: a brief, image-heavy round-up of an Asian market in St. Paul.