Once upon a time, roughly five years ago, a Chinese restaurant named Little Szechuan was born on University Avenue in St. Paul. Its arrival caused restaurant critics across the land to swoon. Its heritage was authentic and its character bold. But all did not live happily ever after. For reasons unknown, key chefs and waitstaff decamped around the second anniversary and headed into the sunset to start an empire of their own, settling in Bloomington and claiming the name Grand Szechuan. It was quickly anointed as the new true exemplar, and the star that was Little Szechuan faded.
This past summer, the hot sibling rivalry gave rise to two offspring: a second Little Szechuan in St. Louis Park’s West End and a second Grand Szechuan just down the highway in Plymouth. I decided to put this new western-metro sons-of-Szechuan matchup to the test.
For starters, Little Szechuan has unquestionably snared the better location. There’s not much of a comparison between its “lifestyle center” and Grand Szechuan’s setting in a lifeless strip mall near Carlson Parkway and 494. On a Saturday evening, Little Szechuan was packed to capacity (it’s hard not to smile at the diners sporting western garb spicing up on Asian fare before a night at Toby Keith’s). As for décor, Little Szechuan takes honors with a high-ceilinged interior stylishly done with black lacquer tables, gauzy curtains, and a small bar area. In contrast, Grand Szechuan is pretty much the prototypical functional and ungussied Chinese restaurant that’s perfectly adequate but nothing special. Another factor in Little Szechuan’s favor is full bar service, including a bevy of interesting libations. As was the case with the original Grand Szechuan, its new outpost opened without a liquor license and at press time was still waiting. Spicy Asian food just isn’t the same without a Tsingtao or my new favorite Seven Sisters wines, the perfect complement for this kind of food.
On the flip side, a crowded and busy spot doesn’t always equate to a smoothly run night. One of the challenges we laid down to our servers was to sequence our sampling of more than 10 dishes in waves. The disappointing result at Little Szechuan was a steady stream of dishes that were tepid—and no amount of feedback on the subject helped. In contrast, just about everything ordered at Grand Szechuan arrived piping hot, and our excellent waiter couldn’t have done a better job of timing the courses. In the case of Little Szechuan, another not-so-surprising facet of the nicer surroundings is the added cost—according to my reckoning, about a 10 to 20 percent price jump.
In terms of the food itself, both restaurants offer nearly identical voluminous menus. Interestingly, when we asked our servers to suggest some do-not-miss dishes, their recommendations produced close matches as well. Exceptions to the rule at Little Szechuan were the pan-seared lamb chops—lightly spicy, nicely Frenched, and very modern; the Szechuan spicy tofu, which was a pleasantly piquant arrangement of silky deep-fried soybean cubes that reminded me of the wonderful spicy golden tofu served at Peninsula Malaysian Cuisine; and the shredded pork in fish sauce, a slightly vinegar-edged toss of tender meat, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms that was our favorite dish at the restaurant. The exception at Grand Szechuan was a slightly sweet and wonderful stir-fry of shredded pork and green onions. When it comes to a head-to-head comparison of the dishes that are widely considered to be northern Chinese standards, Grand Szechuan emerges victorious in just about every case. Not only were the presentations and ingredients first-rate, but the saucing and seasoning were more dynamic and distinctive. From the superior crunchy texture of bamboo shoots in chili sauce, to the standout creamy and nutty sesame dressing on dan dan noodles, to the broccoli-ringed presentation of crispy shrimp or the excellently al dente Szechuan green beans, Grand Szechuan’s preparations were winners.
Items that were closest to ties were the pot stickers, nicely sized and well filled in both cases, and the classic Chung King chili chicken stir-fry. If anything, Grand Szechuan’s rendition might have been a little over the top spice-wise.
The biggest disappointment at both places was the recommended duck dishes. Little Szechuan’s honey duck was presented conveniently carved into bite-sized pieces along with Peking-style pancakes, scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin, but it was a bit overcooked. Grand Szechuan’s smoked duck not only lacked any suffused taste, but it was greasy and had been hacked into assorted pieces, making it difficult and messy to eat.
All things considered, if we had visited Little Szechuan on a less hectic evening or had tried some kung pao or beef in chili broth, I wonder if the impression would have been different. Perhaps. But for now, with all things weighted and considered, my top vote goes to Grand Szechuan.