If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Little Szechuan, which was, until very recently, the best Chinese restaurant in the Twin Cities.
Either Pulao or I have talked to you about it or, even more likely, you’ve sat at a table there with us. In fact, considering the readership of 12apostrophes, there is a very good chance you were with us at Grand Szechuan last night.
Little Szechuan, in St. Paul, was a magical place. There I was introduced to things that I now cannot live without, like the Dan Dan Noodle, and the Szechuan peppercorn.
I became part of a dozen or so regulars who, in some configuration or another, dined at Little Szechuan way, way too often, and ordered food like we were preparing for an apocalypse, with plates stacked atop each other on the lazy Susan, a one-table buffet, all the better to try a bit of as many dishes as you could, and ensure you’d have some more for one, last late-night taste, and lunch or dinner (or both) the next day.
Then the chefs left.
One day we ordered all our old faves, but it just wasn’t the same. One dish was too salty. One dish’s sauce was too thin. One dish was soggy when it should have been crispy.
It was two months ago but we finally found them. The Little Szechuan chefs started their own place, a new place, called, in a little dig at their former employ, Grand Szechuan.
We drove their last night, nine of us, all the way to Old Shackopee and France in Bloomington. Would it be the same? Was this truly them? We had tried Little Szechuan post-chef-walkout a few times. We had tried Tea House, which we had heard was on par with Little Szechuan in its heyday. Maybe, one of us said, it’s a little like heroin; you chase and chase, but never get as high as the first time.
Let me tell you: Grand Szechuan is the good shit.
Nearing the end of our dinner, when I had abandoned my plate altogether and picked Chung King Chili Chicken and A Choy morsels directly from the serving dishes, I pushed back in my chair, and, Szechuan peppercorns coursing through my veins, sighed the sigh of the deeply content and soon to be fat.
A friend to my right knew this feeling very well, and began to laugh, at which point I began to laugh, at which point people across the table asked, “What are you laughing at?”, at which point I could only answer, truthfully, “Nothing!”, at which point, all nine of us began to laugh.
The food is like that.
I’m torn. I don’t want to disparage my old Little Szechuan; where we’ve all brought anyone who came through town in last two years; where I’ve driven eight miles for takeout, multiple times; where the wait staff is happy to see us, and us them; where the owner confided to us she hadn’t slept since all nine chefs walked out at once the week before . . .
I’ll say this about Little Szechuan: it’s still the best Chinese in St. Paul. Get the Dan Dan Noodles, which got better with the new kitchen, and the Ma La or Szechuan Taste chicken — fantastic dishes you can’t get at Grand Szechuan.
But who am I kidding? I’ll sell all my memories of Little Szechuan for one more hit of the real Ma Po, with pork crumbles and black bean paste surrounding the fresh tofu as your whole mouth tingles . . .
Make the drive to south Bloomington. If you’re an old-school Little Szechuan-er, this is all you need to know: Grand Szechuan is where the chefs went.