By BOB SAN
ST. PAUL — My baseball buddy Jim and his girl friend Claudia wanted to try some Szechuan food. So, I told them about the Little Szechuan on University Avenue in St. Paul, that is widely recognized by local Chinese as the most authentic Szechuan restaurant in town.
I discovered by accident that Little Szechuan opened a new restaurant at West End in St. Louis Park near the intersection of Highways 394 and 100. So we decided to give it a try.
It was a good decision. With the light rail project on University Avenue, it can be a challenge for suburbanites to locate the back parking lot at St. Paul’s Little Szechuan. Plus, on that particular night, the Lowry Tunnel eastbound was closed, so it would take Jim and Claudia a long time to get from the western suburbs to St. Paul.
And the restaurant, which opened last July, made our decision even better. When I walked into the new Little Szechuan, my immediate reaction was that this is the best-decorated Chinese restaurant I’ve ever seen in the Twin Cities.
The restaurant has modern décor mixed in with Asian touches and the lightings and color of the spacious dining room give it a very mellow and comfy feel. The tables, chairs and booths are all brand new and each table has wrapped table clothes neatly tucked into water glasses. You don’t see that at the St. Paul location or any Asian restaurants here.
Little Szechuan has an extensive menu and a nice liquor list. I was surprised to see they have sake, which Jim ordered It went well with the spicy food.
For appetizers we ordered sweet potato cakes (mashed sweet potato deep fried covered with sesame seeds (six for $6.95) and Szechuan cold bean jelly, a large plate of white bean jelly covered with a sauce made with chile oil, roasted chile, and Sichuan peppercorns ($6.50). The sweet potato cakes were okay, a bit dry, but I love the jelly. It was cool, clean, and refreshing, and blended perfectly with the hot sauce.
For entrees we ordered Honey Duck ($15.95), Chungking Chili Beef ($13.95) and Home Style Tofu ($10.95). The duck had a sweet tangy flavor and came with hoisin sauce.
Chungking Chili Beef is one of the signature dishes for Szechuan cuisine and this one came with chunks of beef with red pepper, onions and red chili.
The tofu dish is another Szechuan staple and came with large slices of tofu stir fried with onion and green pepper in a bean paste with chili sauce.
All three dishes were yummy but our favorite was the Home Style Tofu. The only complaint we had was that we wanted to have a spicy meal. And even though we ordered extra spicy, the dishes, while very tasty, still left me and Claudia wanting for more.
The service was good and efficient, but it’s obvious the wait staff does not have much knowledge about Szechuan cuisine. We asked two simply questions about what are the ingredients in the dishes but neither the waitress nor the young man who brought us the food could provide an answer.
It really does matter to know what are the ingredients in our food, because they were all very good and tasty. Obviously we ordered way too much and had plenty of leftovers.
Jim and Claudia liked the place so much that they went back there with Claudia’s son and his girlfriend two weeks later.
“We liked the Home Style Tofu so much among the six or seven dishes that we tried on our first visit that we went back specifically for the tofu,” Jim said. “At $12, the dish is big enough for two. Add the Szechuan Cold Bean Jelly appetizer and you have two great dishes that should feed two hungry people for under $20.”
So overall, the West End Little Szechuan hits a home run with me and my friends. Not only is the restaurant full of charm, the food is tasty and the prices are reasonable; it is also a nice place to take your spouse or date. There is a large movie theater and many stores right there at West End so you can go for a movie or go shopping after dinner.
Little Szechuan is located at 5377 — 16th Street, St. Louis Park. The phone number is 952-322-7671 and visit online at http://littleszechuan.com.