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March 14, 2007

Lao Sze Chuan

Dominic Armato
Now here's a restaurant I've been waiting to write about for a long time.

Lao Sze Chuan has been a favorite of mine since we were first introduced (thanks, Kirsten!) about 4 or 5 years ago. At the time, I semi-joked that it was the only Chicagoland Chinese restaurant of which I approved, and the semi-joke mostly still applies, albeit in exaggerated fashion (especially since I've now been made aware of Katy's Dumplings, of which -- let's be absolutely clear, here -- I heartily approve). But exaggerations aside, this is the only local restaurant that satisfies the authentic Chinese jones when I've been away from the mainland for too long. After years of traveling to China every other month, the past year has seen some changes that have kept me away for a while. In fact, it's now pushing a year since my last visit. Let's just say I've been hitting Lao Sze Chuan a lot lately.

Dominic Armato
In the most selfish manner possible, I think the only thing I can hold against Lao Sze Chuan is that it isn't the source of fabulous Cantonese seafood that I dream of. It's Sichuan (Sichuan? Szechuan? Sichuan is the Romanization I've always seen in Hong Kong, and thusly the one I've adopted), which means that despite originating in the same country as Cantonese (bastardizations of which dominate the Ameri-Chinese culinary landscape) it's as similar to Cantonese as New Orleans' gumbo and po' boys are to Chicago's hot dogs and Italian beef. It's a big country over there. And as such, the variations in local cuisine as you go from province to province are enormous. So for those who are mostly familiar with Americanized Chinese, Lao Sze Chuan will be totally unfamiliar. Heck, most Ameri-Chinese dishes barely resemble the coastal Cantonese classics from which they're derived, much less the foods of a landlocked province over 1,000 miles away.

Dominic Armato
The good news is that while head chef Tony Hu doesn't produce the dishes I pine for the most, his Sichuan specialties are so good I don't care. Can you get Ameri-Chinese standards like Sweet Sour Pork and Orange Beef? Absolutely. And they'll probably be among the best if not the best preparations you've had. But it's kind of like asking a French master to make you a hamburger. Sure, he'll do a damn fine job of it, but aren't you kind of wasting the opportunity? Tony's specialty is authentic Sichuan cuisine, and if the Sichuan restaurants I've visited in Hong Kong and Guangdong over the years are any indication of what it's like to eat in the province itself, Tony's dishes are right on the money. It should come as no surprise, given that the man trained at the Sichuan Culinary Institute and worked as a chef in Chengdu before moving to the States. The truth is that we're lucky to have him. His dishes convey not only the fire and spice for which Sichuan dishes are known, but also the variety and subtlety that is completely lost when these dishes are prepared by those who don't know what they're doing.

Dominic Armato
The menu is chock full of the spicy, but not all heat is created equal, and you don't even have to look past the appetizers to learn this lesson. Though you sometimes have to ask, they'll usually bring you a little spicy cabbage to munch on while you're waiting for your meal. It's simple, crisp cabbage that's been doused in clean, hot Sichuan chili oil -- slightly salty, nice and spicy, but very simple. To try a slightly more complex and subtly different use of the same oil, the Sliced Beef and Maw Szechuan Style (on the "Very Chinese Special" section of the menu) is a favorite. Maw, since everybody wants to know, is tripe. And though it isn't often seen here where we like our pork lean, our chicken boneless and our organs in the trash, it always warms my heart to see a great preparation like this that more people would enjoy if they weren't preoccupied with its source. Like many Sichuan appetizers, it's very spicy, very cold, and very delicious. Less objectionable to some but no less delicious is the Szechuan Spicy Rabbit. Though no less fiery, it's a completely different flavor profile, utilizing soy and vinegar and sweetness to foil the heat. Taste these three dishes, and it should be immediately evident that Sichuan cuisine is about a lot more than dousing everything in chili oil.

Dominic Armato
Of course, the variety extends beyond the chili and oil, as well. Fantastic fresh vegetables abound. One of my favorites is the String Beans Spicy Black Sauce, which will come across as mild next to the other dishes mentioned thus far. It's a great dish, with diced and stir-fried string beans that are slightly charred and yet still possess a fresh green flavor. Whole fermented black beans provide salt and pungency, while little bits of what I believe is fried tofu make for a nice textural contrast. Garlic Pea Pod Leafs and Chinese Eggplant in Garlic Sauce are also wonderful, and though I thought it was a little plain Jane compared to the other offerings, enough of my friends seem to enjoy the Mushroom Festival Oyster Sauce that I figured it bore mentioning. Plus, how often do you get to order a festival?

Dominic Armato
But before we drift too far, let's pull it back to the hardcore Sichuan specialties with a dish that couldn't possibly embody the heart of Sichuan cuisine more boldly, the Ma Po Tofu. Taking the chili oil to its soupy extreme, Ma Po Tofu hits both the fiery chili and the tingly huajiao that permeate so many foods of the region, but what separates Tony's version from so many others I've had is that it has a complex roundness of flavor that supports the more assertive elements. For years, I lamented the fact that a Ma Po Tofu so good was missing the ground pork that I adore so much. That is, until I was recently told that ground pork is available as an off-the-menu add-on. Unless you don't dig on swine, get it with the pork. I'm still not certain what's considered the proper way to consume this dish, but while most I know put it over rice, I like to drop a little in a small bowl and go at it with a soup spoon.

Dominic Armato
For a spicy of a different kind, the Lamb with Pure Cumin Powder Xin Jiang Style is formidable stuff. It has some kick, what with some fresh green chiles and dried red chiles worked into the stir-fry, but this dish is all about cumin. Powder, seeds... and seemingly the pure distilled essence of the cumin gods after they spent the afternoon frolicking in cumin fields and the evening reading poetry about cumin while burning toasted cumin incense and basking in the glow of the cumin moon, I don't know. But it's intense stuff. On top of which, lamb is another one of those items we don't see nearly enough of, as far as I'm concerned.

Dominic Armato
The first dish I ever had at Lao is still one of my favorites. Though the pile of dried chiles is somewhat intimidating, appearances are deceiving. The House Special Dry Chili Prawns with Shell aren't any hotter than some of the dishes mentioned above. This is the dish I love to get to demonstrate to people that shrimp shells are not only edible but, in fact, quite wonderful when they're cooked hot enough. They're spicy, a little garlicky, coated with a light and crispy coating, and possessed of shells that provide a nice crunch along with their chitiny goodness. The best part, however, is that none of this spicy and textural boldness overshadows the prawn, which is clearly the predominant flavor. They'll prepare them without the shells on request, but regardless of where you end up falling on the shell/no-shell preference spectrum, you owe it to yourself to first try them the way they're meant to be eaten... shells, legs, tails and all. As far as I'm concerned, all they're missing is the heads.

Dominic Armato
Another favorite for the non-spicy crowd is the Szechuan Smoked Tea Duck. One of the things I love about getting meat dishes in China is the manner in which they frequently cut their meat. We go to great lengths to trim large chunks of muscle away from fat, bone and connective tissue. The result is a large piece of meat that is easy to eat, but this is usually at the expense of flavor. Thousands of years of Chinese culinary wisdom knows that the parts we remove contain flavor, so when you're served half a duck in China, the breast hasn't been carefully removed from the bone. Rather, the chef has taken a massive cleaver and chopped right through the entire bird, meat, bones, skin and all. The whole bird is involved in the cooking process. It sometimes requires nimble teeth, but the rewards are vast. In this case, you have beautiful, lightly smoked duck meat with wonderfully crisp skin, and a little hoisin sauce for dipping. Spectacular when it's on.

Dominic Armato
Continuing the theme of things we don't see here, Tony's Steamed Pork with Sweet Pickle demonstrates the Chinese understanding that pork belly is good for more than just bacon. Some of the best dishes I've had in China have been intensely sweet and spiced steamed pork belly that quite literally melts upon hitting your tongue. This is a lighter preparation, resting upon a bitter and slightly sweet stewed herb of some kind, and it's not the knock-your-socks-off intense pork belly that I pine for. That said, it's still quite delicious and should be educational for anybody who hasn't had pork belly outside of a cured context. I also mention this in the hopes that somebody can steer me towards the kind of Chinese pork belly I truly crave. In the interim, this'll do nicely.

Dominic Armato
Of course, after talking up the whole "order the Sichuan specialties" angle, I have to close here with a couple of dishes that may not be traditionally Sichuan, but are just phenomenal. These last two dishes are drop-dead awesome, and the two that absolutely nobody resists. The first, listed on the menu as Tony's Chicken with Three Chili, strikes me as his attempt to bridge the gap between authentic Sichuan and Ameri-Chinese. Chunks of dark chicken meat are first deep-fried and then stir-fried with a ton of elements, only some of which I could identify. It's both hot and sweet, light and crispy, moist in the middle, sitting on a solid foundation of onions and sweet peppers and soy sauce, and it's absolutely explosive. It's intense and addictive and goes down incredibly easy, despite its fried nature. As signature dishes go, this one's a big winner.

Dominic Armato
But the dish that haunts me the most... the one dish I just can't walk in the door without ordering... is the Crispy Shrimp with Mayonnaise Sauce. Stop right there. I've known many who balked at the thought of a mayonnaise sauce, some of whom professed to absolutely hate mayonnaise in any form. And every single one has adored this dish. If you have any misgivings at all, please, I implore you, set them aside. This falls into the category of "if I didn't tell you, you wouldn't know". You don't get the mayonnaise flavor, but you do get the mayonnaise richness. The dish is large, juicy, crisp fried shrimp that are coated in an intense, sweet, creamy glaze that's hit with just enough orange flavor to cut the richness. I cannot stress how wonderful this dish is. I wish I could eat it again for the first time, just so I could have the honor of putting it on my top ten list for the year. Get it. And most importantly, when it hits the table, drop everything. In 60 seconds, it'll be only 70% as good as it is right at that moment.

These are just a few favorites. Part of what's great about Lao Sze Chuan is that you could go every day for a year and just barely get through the menu. I count over 350 items. Most of what I've tried has been excellent, and some dishes have been absolutely spectacular. The favorites I've compiled so far would be plenty to bring me back repeatedly on their own, but the excitement that goes along with knowing that there must be other drop-dead incredible dishes hidden in that tome they call a menu is what really drives me. Lao Sze Chuan is a brilliant restaurant, and after five years I'm still just getting to know it. If you've dug up some other gems, by all means, do help.

Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60616
312-326-5040
www.laoszechuan.com
Lunch11:30 AM - 3:00 PM
Dinner3:00 PM - 12:00 AM

Comments

I'm a snob for good Chinese food and Lao Szechuan is probably the only Chinese restaurant in the city that I can proudly take out of town Chinese looking for authentic Chinese food (Katy's will do the trick in the 'burbs). The Lamb in cumin is one of my favorite Chinese dishes, the Lao Szechuan version is far from "traditional", but its excellent and its just good to see this dish on a menu in the US. My absolute favorite dish at Lao Szechuan is the "ma la dou hua" (I can't remember what it is on the menu, but having checked the website, I believe its the "Spicy Tender Tofu"). A big bowl of the soft tofu in an extremely spicy sauce for under $5, a real bargin. Another great thing about Lao Szechuan is that you can get a pretty traditional Chinese hotpot. Your pictures are making me think I might need to make the trip to Lao Szechuan tomorrow.

Hey, B!

Can't say I've had the ma la dou hua... I'll add it to the list.

You're also not the first who's sung the priases of the hot pot. I've been meaning to try it forever, but I can never manage to tear myself away from the regular menu.

Man, I can't wait to try your suggestions. I've met one other person who will brave the crowds at Lao sze chuan with me, but most of my friends don't appreciate the food enough to go. The funny thing is I always get that table by the door on a cold day, with patrons staring at me through my entire meal, which makes me very uneasy. But the food is so good, you just have to take your time and enjoy it despite the onlookers. I've got to get the recipe for that spicy cabbage.

Wow... that's really a good place! However, service is not that kind...

Been a while since the post, but any good vegetarian recommendations for this restaurant?

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