I used to believe my stomach was cast iron; I could consume anything inside it and not really worry about it. The ever dwindling populations of Lactase enzymes, as well as Szechuan (some pronounce Sich-Chawn, which I prefer after the name of the province in Southwest China) cuisine have served as the gravity to those ill-formed ideas. I don’t care what all my Chinese friends say (you know who you are), I know you are hurting after consuming chilies like popcorn.
As Chengdu Taste was one of my great dining experiences of 2014, I was eager to try Szechuan Impression, the newcomer to the regional Chinese dining scene. It’s amazing how much variety comes from this area, an ancient regional crossroads for Sichuan based salt merchants. There are said to be four sub-styles, the most known being Chengdu style named after the provincial capital of Sichuan province.
Chengdu is a sub-provincial city in Sichuan Province, and is the birthplace of the first widely used paper money, as well as around 14 million people as of the 2010 census. Directly west is the Chongqing municipality, also called ‘Fog City’ due to the over 100 days of fog per year, and its status among the ten most air-polluted cities in the world. Chengdu is considered a city of leisure given its numerous tea houses, greater than 1000 year history as the starting point of the Silk Road, and the rumored ‘thousands’ of dishes.
No stranger to this style cuisine I was eager to dive right in, noticing immediately that this was slightly more upscale restaurant than Chengdu Taste. The leather-bound menus featured nicely printed English as well as Chinese, in addition to artwork on the walls.
Quite a few of the nouveau riche Chinese multi-millionaires from nearby San Gabriel Valley and Arcadia (“The Mistress City of California”) where in attendance as a Bugatti was parked outside on the otherwise deserted street. Arcadia has been generating a lot of press for receiving an F grade for historical preservation, with the proliferation of ‘McMansions’. Detractors say that it is eroding city heritage to make way for incoming waves of Chinese immigrants. I’m all about it, as long as they bring their food with them.
One thing I did discover through my friend Danny Li was Chinese drinkable yogurt, which had an almost preternatural neutralizing effect on the extreme spice of certain dishes. I also enjoyed the jujube tea that was served, with a slight honeyed sweetness and adequate depth of flavor.
The wantons were my favorite dish of the evening – a simple presentation arrived steaming hot with the perfect level of Sichuan peppercorn and heat. I would’ve ordered more.
The following noodle dish, as well as wok prepared mustard greens weren’t too exciting – the greens were prepared with garlic that I could certainly tell wasn’t freshly diced, and the noodles got cold quickly congealing to expose a lack of substance to the dish.
The boiled fish, a dish I adored at Chengdu was served here in an elegant stoneware dish and had a good fragrance. I didn’t dislike anything about this dish other than the layer of oil, though I wasn’t entirely impressed by it either.
A similar presentation of pork was much better, served in a copper bowl with squash adorned with a sloppy garnish of cilantro. The flavor here was very good, but the cuts of pork (or was this chicken? I can’t remember..) were as poorly butchered and not as tender as I expected.
The deep fried tripe with chili peppers was served curiously on an aluminum sheet pan covered in aluminum foil, something I found highly strange. I found the tripe under seasoned and just spicy, without much character, it sat mostly uneaten and rapidly got cold through dinner.
The service here is/was pretty decent, but I think that was mostly because we came closer to closing time (9pm I believe). People came in and ate quickly, while we waited to be sat, most tables were empty by the time we finished.
I don’t think I can recommend Szechuan Impression over Chengdu Taste, which has dishes that elevate the senses to an ethereal level, is less expensive, and frankly more fun.