Little Szechuan

Last weekend, I finally got a chance to try Little Szechuan. The St. Paul location has apparently been a well-regarded institution for years, but this year they opened up a satellite location five minutes away from me, in the Shops At West End.

If you're unfamiliar with the Shops At West End, and you probably are, they're one of those attempts to create a faux-urban "community" in the suburbs, with shops and restaurants and condos and whatnot. SAWE is pretty upscale as these things go. One of its anchor restaurants is Crave, home of the twenty five dollar shrimp stir-fry. But hey, it's got STIR FRY SAUCE.

Basically, the Shops at West End is fake downtown with free parking. Or fake Uptown for people scared by tattoos and art films. But Little Szechuan is there.

Luckily, Little Szechuan isn't like that. I mean, it's snazzy. It's got all the standard lighting, decor, and tableware you'd expect from the environment. But the pricing's more reasonable, and the food is really, really good.

It's a lot like Tea House, really - the menus are more accessible, though, full of pictures of all the dishes. When I ordered pork belly at Tea House, the waiter gave me pork stomach by mistake. When I ordered pork belly at Little Szechuan, the waiter made sure I knew what pork belly was, and that it could be very fatty. But the dishes and quality are in the same ballpark.

One thing I'm learning, the more I have reasonably authentic Szechuan, is that if you want vegetables, plan on ordering them separately. Oh, the cured pork belly I got had scallions in it, but that was it. Scallions, pork belly, seasoning. Same with the duck and the uncured pork belly dish we had at the table. A plate of bok choy and shitake mushrooms fit the bill nicely, but it did add another twelve bucks to the bill. and only had a few mushrooms.

I actually ended up liking the uncured pork belly, which had more of a sauce on it, more than the cured, where the main flavor was... OK, I can't identify the main flavor, but it's a kind of dark, tangy, smokiness that you get from simple dishes in Szechuan restaurants. I don't know what it is, but it's very distinctive and can be a bit much without a lot else to play off against.

The crispy duck was awesome, because crispy duck is awesome if you don't fuck it up, and they didn't fuck it up.

The final tally ended up being about $20 per person without drinks, which isn't bad for three entrees and a vegetable dish. You could pump that higher, but there's not much wiggle room to get below that. Still, there were healthy amounts of leftover meats, and believe you me, cured pork belly and duck fried rice is not a bad thing.