Welcome to Dining On A Dime a feature in which Eater surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you want us to go next? Do share.
Szechuan Impression took over Ray Ray's Eat to the Beat just two weeks ago. Last weekend, thanks to some good ol' Chinese social media, and the boat tons of Chengdu city ex-pats in Los Angeles, the compact restaurant had to purchase all-weather chairs for the diners lining up outside. Yes, another Sichuan restaurant in Alhambra is rapidly blowing up, and there is no way to avoid the lines, even on a Tuesday evening.
Lynn Liu is the young, petite force behind Szechuan Impression. She shys away from talking about herself, but admitted this is already her second restaurant venture within as many years in the United States. The modus operandi here is not so simple: find Sichuan regional culinary treasures that Chinese millenials may (or may not) have had during childhood, find chefs to duplicate the flavor, find seasonal greens to match a Sichuanese's memory, and update everyone's impression of Sichuanese cuisine while retaining a bit of nostalgia even in the United States. Hence the name "Szechuan Impression".
For a solo lunch, a fellow visitor, says a Sichuan-er would partake in the chitterling starch noodles and a bowl of rice (total $7.99), then proudly announces she is a Chengdu ex-pat. For a lunch of two, go for the steamed rice powder dipped lamb with pumpkin and the "school garden" classic starch noodle hot pot . With a four top at dinner, the meal is transformable with limitless combinations. Start with a cold dish of bath tub ("fresh") pickled cabbage ($8.99), add the spiced minced garlic pork ($8.99), go big with the Chengdu classic of bo bo chicken pot with 40 skewers of spicy chicken and accoutrements ($16.99). Alternatively, begin with rice powder steamed lamb ($9.99), the "impressive" smargasbord spicy hot pot ($14.99), and finish off with Cinderella's pumpkin cakes ($5.99).
Don't forget to let the mamasan have her way with the seasonal vegetables, despite the menu's "UP2U" instructions. Sometimes the staff will offer yam leaves, sometimes it will be empty heart vegetables; all will be quickly tossed in the wok hey, and available with a variety of seasonings suitable for individual greens. Just like the French, the Chinese have always eaten farm-to-table, and Szechuan Impression is aiming to maintain the tradition, but add a little mom & pop "trust me" fun.
The point here is to avoid the twice-cooked pork, the kungpao chicken, the mapo tofu, the stereotypical home-cooked dishes that "mom knows how to make best". Liu wants to bring elevated Sichuan flavors, not so much the common Sichuan dishes. She favors the dual-purpose dishes of soup casseroles and trusts her Chinese diaspora customer base to provide authentic feedback
For those who are completely lost when confronted by the menu, the following are Liu's favorite sons from every section of the menu: traditional garlic, spicy cold noodles ("because it's so hot out right now.. we don't use any sesame paste"), 狼牙土豆 "wolf teeth" wavy seasoned street fries ("it reminds me of my childhood when these crinkle-cut fries were sold right in front of middle school from street carts"), "敲脚牛肉" crossed-leg beef stew. ("this beef casserole is cooked for 5 hours, it can be eaten 2 ways -- spicy, or not, with soup, or not, as you wish. it's so good it makes you lean back with your legs crossed"), 金汤肥牛 beef golden soup ("we tweaked this recipe a bit to suit SoCal weather. the pumpkin tinged soup is a bit more vinegary than we'd cook in Sichuan, but global warming has not been kind to Los Angeles"), and for dessert, "红糖糍粑" red sugar sticky rice cake.
Of note: the crossed leg beef stew is evocative of a pho broth. In fact, it may the platonic ideal which every bowl of pho bo should achieve. Except this is at a Sichuan restaurant, and the pho is rice, not rice noodles. A pot of this beefy hodgepodge ($18.99) and several bowls of rice should satiate a dining couple. Don't forget the dessert section, which will be a highlight in the final menu.
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