Ladies Who Brunch


Put a little chili pepper in it: Lao Szechuan by disastercouch
November 27, 2011, 4:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Every chef I know swears by this place and its no wonder.  It’s one of the only restaurants in town that serves legitimately spicy food (insert obligatory shout out to Khan BBQ, Xni-Pec and Sticky Rice).

It’s mandatory to start out with a bowl of the extra spicy soup.  Add in a handful of the Szechuan pepper spiked cabbage and you’ll be sweating within a few bites.  The particularly bite of the Szechuan pepper is irresistible, a dry heat that tickles the back of the throat and sends you back for more before the pain of the first bite has subsided.  In terms of raw heat, it’s a few notches below the habanero or thai bird, but definitely not for the faint of heart.

The pepper shines again in the restaurant’s signature dish, a spicy chicken hot pot.  Over time, and many meals at venerable establishments such as Sun Wah, I have come to appreciate the Chinese technique of butchering poultry.  Unlike the Western method, in which the goal is to separate as much meat from the bone as possible, Chinese chefs tend to cut directly across the bone, insuring a little shard in most every bite.  It makes for a messy experience, but what is lost in convenience is made up for in flavor, with the earthy and rich flavors of bone and marrow adding an added dimension to each bite.  This is showcased well in the bubbling hot pot, where piping hot bits of fried chicken float in a broth of chili pepper and scallion, each steaming bite a harbinger of severe but well earned heartburn to come.

One of the standard dishes we use as a basis of comparison amongst Chinese restaurants is Ma Po Tofu.  Typically, my favorite thing about this dish is the addition of ground pork to the tofu base, a delightfully delicious slap in the face to tofu chomping vegans.  Lao Szechuan’s version actually is vegetarian, but they are forgiven, as the silky smooth tofu becomes yet another vehicle for spicy pepper infused broth.  The final touch is a generous scoop of toasted rice powder on top, adding depth and soul to the dish; this exactly the kind of thing that can sustain you through a dreary Chicago winter.

The service at Lao Szechuan is pretty much par for the course in Chinatown; I would appreciate a few more concessions to gaijin-style dining, such as regular water refills, but with few enough options in town for true chili-heads, I’m willing to suffer regular long lines and somewhat inattentive service for a few tongue tingling bites of true Szechuan cuisine.

Finally, a word about dumplings:  try the pork dumplings here, they are nothing special but they are oh-so-special in that they are exactly right, the perfect size with a perfectly spiced dense pork meatball in the center, pefectly steamed and perfectly pan fried to just the right level of char on the outside.

Lao Szechuan 2172 South Archer Avenue  Chicago, IL 60616.  (312) 326-5040.  Open daily from 11am to midnight.  Reservations accepted for large parties.  $15-20/person.

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