Review: Szechuan Impression skewers all expectations
Bobo chicken, at least as interpreted at Szechuan Impression, is a party in a pot, a ceramic pot that strongly resembles a novelty St. Patrick’s Day hat, half-filled with chile-laced broth and with long bamboo skewers sticking up from the vessel in almost comic profusion, like spines from a porcupine or needles from the flank of an acupuncture patient. (I think they look like the bristling spears in Uccello’s paintings of the Battle of San Romano, but I probably took too many art history courses when I was in college.)
At the pointy end of the skewers, you might find almost anything: a scrap of black fungus, sliced lotus root, a heart or gizzard, a crunchy curl of goose intestine — even the odd chunk of actual chicken, though it is so rare that it registers almost as a mistake. You never know quite what you are getting when you pluck each skewer from the broth — the element of surprise is as essential to the seasoning as the two or three kinds of chile in the broth.
The chicken sells out quickly, but if you show up early enough in the evening, you can probably snag one of the scant 20 orders available each day. You won’t come close to finishing it — nobody does — but the dozens of skewers protruding from the takeout container will look festive in your refrigerator the next day.
It seems hard to believe at the moment, but not long ago the only real Sichuan restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley was a few tables crammed into a former House of Pies. Sichuan peppercorns were technically illegal at the time — agricultural officials feared they could carry a citrus disease — so the legendary mala effect, the combination of numbing and fiercely spicy flavors at the heart of the cuisine, were mostly imaginary. The effect was as monochromatic as local Mexican restaurants were in the days when every restaurant featured the same 10 dishes.
But Sichuan, especially Chengdu, has become a center of subtle, complex cooking — a recent Fuchsia Dunlop report on Chengdu tasting-menu restaurants practically had me gnawing the computer screen. And the Sichuan food scene here has matured too. You can even find spicy rabbit head if you look hard enough. And everybody by now knows about Chengdu Taste, if only for the famous two-hour wait for a table on weekends.
The lines are also long at Szechuan Impression, and the choice of beverages is basically limited to tea, water and smoked plum juice. The restaurant is home to yet another brand of modern Sichuan cuisine, familiar to followers of Chengdu Taste, from which it drew several of its employees. You can get great versions of the cumin-crusted toothpick lamb, the boiled fish in chile sauce and the lamb steamed in a soft coat of ground sticky rice for which Chengdu Taste is famous. The menu is marked with red peppers where the dishes are spicy and with snowflakes where the dishes are cold. Some of the best dishes, including cold, spicy chunked rabbit, strips of mung bean jelly tossed in chile oil and a plate of soft, luscious sliced pork belly steamed with garlic, are stamped with both.
The new-style Sichuan dish that many of us first fell in love with involved chicken fried with immense mounds of chiles for fragrance, and the version here, made with farm-raised chicken, may be the best in town, as spicy as you might expect it to be but also tasting like chicken instead of bits of crunchy batter. Ingredients matter.
The chef comes from the kitchens of a five-star hotel in Chengdu, so the flavors, the fermented smack of the dan dan noodles and the floppy skins of wonton in red chile oil will be familiar to aficionados of Sichuan cooking. The duck is the same cool, intensely smoky duck you’ll find on many of the cold-appetizer counters in the SGV. If you showed up in summer, you may have tasted drunken whelks or smoky crawfish — the kitchen imports live crawfish from Louisiana in season. Fall is time for fried small crabs with ginger and lots of chile but also for clear, fragrant oxtail soup, the most expensive thing on the menu, weirdly enough, which is a beautiful respite from the multi-chile heat.
If anything, the flavors tend to come from the less-spicy end of the spectrum, including fresh bamboo shoots very lightly dressed with chile, chewy sliced pig’s ears smoked like Sichuan bacon, mustard greens flash-fried in a smoking-hot wok and something called Cinderella’s Pumpkin Rides: sweet, chewy dumplings of pounded pumpkin deep-fried to a delicate crispness, a perfect dish for the aftermath of Halloween. The Leshan beef — Legcrossingly Yum, the menu describes it, because it is supposed to be so delicious that it makes you lean back in your chair — is not unlike a Korean-style soup of beef and turnips with a pure, limpid broth, almost bland until you enhance it with chiles and aromatics.
Chengdu Taste is probably best known for its fish boiled in a green-pepper broth, a dish that smacks you across the mouth with its aggressive dose of peppercorn numbness and chile heat. The version at Szechuan Impression, labeled Boiled Fish With Rattan Pepper, is subtler, the fillets more delicate, the broth almost mild enough to sip (although you will not be provided with a spoon). For nuanced yet mind-blowing heat, you probably have to move on to the gingery sautéed dry pots of diced rabbit or frog.
You may as well stick around for dessert: There are fried lozenges of rice cake sprinkled with soy powder and served on a puddle of liquefied black sugar; a cold, sweet, barely gelled soup made with “ice powder” brought in from Chengdu; or another order of those Cinderella Pumpkin Rides — if those skewers don’t do you in first.
Follow me on Twitter @thejgold
Sichuan cuisine continues its quest for world domination, or at least for the San Gabriel Valley.
1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 283-4622
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Street parking.
Snacks, $5.99-$8.99; cold dishes, $5.99-$13.99; larger dishes, $9.99-$23.99; desserts, $5.99-$6.99.
Smoked pig’s ear, Hongxing diced rabbit, Leshan beef, dry-fried farm chicken, steamed lamb with rice powder, Cinderella’s Pumpkin Rides.
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