Sichuan cuisine has been on a hot streak (pun intended) in the San Gabriel Valley in the past few years. Chengdu Taste in Alhambra is the star of this trend, its mid-2013 opening and rapid rise culminating in the opening of a second location in Rosemead last summer; a Rowland Heights location is in the works. Despite this, the original location still boasts hours-long waits at peak times. Its dishes are traditional, delicious, and mind-numbingly spicy.
Less than a mile east on Valley Blvd., Szechuan Impression opened to great fanfare, with long lines like Chengdu Taste, just a few weeks before that restaurant’s second location opened in August. Serving a more contemporary take on traditional Sichuan cuisine, and with hip-hop pumping out of the speakers the day we dined there, Szechuan Impression definitely seems to be appealing to a younger crowd.
Last Saturday afternoon, Chris Hei and I accompanied fellow food bloggers The Minty, One More Bite Blog, Gourmet Pigs (and a non-food blogging friend of theirs), to check out what it was all about. Chris and 1MB had been before, but it was everyone else’s first time!
Impressive Bean Jelly: Right off the bat, red chili oil painted our plates as we passed and served some of the slick, cold, translucent mung beans noodles around the table. Simple and delicious, the dish had enough flavor and spice to prime us for the rest of the meal, while also being somewhat refreshing in its coolness. [$5.99]
Smoked Pork Ear: A non-spicy dish, the restaurant wasn’t kidding when naming this dish. The ears tasted like smoked ham. I also loved the consistency, rather firm and chewy, but not overly so. This is a top contender for my favorite pig ear dish of all time. [$8.99]
Fuqi Feipian: The name and description of this dish is a little confusing. It translates to “husband and wife sliced lung” and the menu also describes it as “Beef Lungs in Chili Sauce”, but it is not made, here or generally, with actual beef lung. Instead, thin slices of beef, tripe, and tendon are cooked in a spicy sauce. Very good, but I actually wish they did use the named offal, as I’ve only had that cow part a handful of times. [$8.99]
Stir-Fry A-Choy: At Szechuan Impression, as with many Chinese restaurants, seasonal vegetables are offered, cooked in a variety of styles. My usual choice is on-choy, or water spinach (a.k.a. morning glory), but it was not available that day. We opted for a-choy, or Taiwanese lettuce, stir-fried with garlic. Delicious, and it was good to have some vegetables on the table! [$8.99]
Boiled Fish Fillets in Chili Sauce: While I prefer the whole green peppercorn version of this iconic Sichuan dish, I still really enjoyed the delicate fish swimming in spicy red sauce. Not quite as spicy or numbing as I’ve had, but definitely not mild by any stretch of the imagination. [$9.99]
Garlic Shredded Pork: Another delicious misnomer, rather than shredded, the pork belly in the dish was actually thin-sliced, with a very high meat-to-fat ratio. [$8.99]
Tea Smoked Ribs: An impressive-looking rack of baby-back ribs, the meat was very tender and flavorful, but I didn’t get a strong sense of the tea smoke, but having tasted this after many of the hotter dishes, as well as the pig ears, perhaps my senses were a bit dulled. [Not on the printed menu–may have been on the specials board–and I did not see the receipt at the end, so I’m not sure how much it cost.] [Update: Chris says the ribs were $18.]
Grandma’s Pickled Cucumber: We definitely needed some cooling after all the spicy dishes we had, and the cucumber, just lightly pickled, was the right prescription for the fever in our mouths. Also more cowbell. [$5.99]
Lamb on Toothpicks: The most expensive dish, potentially (since I wasn’t privy to the cost of the ribs), the cumin-crusted toothpick lamb was quite tasty, if a little chewy. From a video that fellow food blogger Clarissa Wei posted, the lamb is apparently fried three times, which might be once too many in my amateur opinion, but I still had a pile of toothpicks on my plate at the end of the meal! [$15.99]
Steamed Rice Powder-Coated Lamb: The last dish of the meal, we were told that it would take at least 20 minutes to prepare. Unfortunately, in this case, last was least, as it was the only disappointing dish of the meal for me. The rice powder was less coarse than I’ve had in other renditions of this dish (usually with pork ribs), and perhaps the dish was a bit overcooked, making the coating much too gummy for my taste. The slices of lamb were also rather gristly and sinewy, which was a bit of a turn-off. [$9.99]
Overall, I found Szechuan Impression’s dishes to be more subtle compared to Chengdu Taste’s. I could taste real heat without being hit over the head with numbing spices. Despite the disappointing ending, Szechuan Impression definitely left a positive, lasting imp–okay, I won’t go there. But I will go back to Szechuan Impression! It’ll have to be for dinner, though, because I really wanted to try the Bobo Chicken, assorted chicken parts on skewers, sitting in a bowl of spicy sauce. Apparently, they don’t serve that dish at lunch!
1900 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803