We’ve had a long love affair with Little Szechuan. Even during head-scratching stretches of inconsistency, we remained true to the St. Paul institution. We just couldn’t stay away from the spicy peanut noodles, fiery soups, savory meats, fried fish, sweet and salty vegetables, and crispy tofu. The service was generally good and the atmosphere typically jovial. And how we adored the lazy Susans, spinning round and round during many a family-style feast. When we learned earlier this summer that Little Szechuan was changing to Little Szechuan Hot Pot (that’s right, all hot pot, all the time), we were caught off guard and honestly, felt a bit jilted.
After a two-month makeover, the restaurant reopened in June, but we didn’t visit until last week because boiling cauldrons of soup didn’t appeal in the sweaty months of summer. The interior hasn’t changed much, but the tables now have inlaid induction burners for firing up the hot pots, and the menu is an intimidating list of items divided into categories: soup base, seafood, meat, mushroom, vegetable, and “tofu and more.” Diners check off one or two soup bases (the hot pot can be split in half) and ingredients for cooking in the boiling liquid. There’s everything from sirloin beef slices and Chinese broccoli to bullfrog and Chinese cruller (fried dough). You can eat the cooked items straight out of the pot (hence servers describe hot pot as “like fondue”) or add them to a bowl of broth for soup, which diners can liven up with an assortment of condiments.
Depending on your perspective, the process of selecting and cooking ingredients, mixing and matching condiments, and keeping ladles from falling into the bubbling broth (a task we failed to master) is good fun or unwelcome labor. While we fall somewhere in the middle of those two positions, we were impressed by the quality of the offerings. The combination of “spicy and fresh” soup bases was first rate. Made with dried peppers, chili oil, and ma la (Szechuan peppercorns that slightly numb the mouth), the “spicy” broth made us sweat and tear up. The “fresh” side, a comforting chicken broth, was a good foil for its devilish counterpart. Of the twenty or so ingredients we sampled, plump oyster mushrooms and vibrant Chinese broccoli were our favorites, with fresh tofu and house dumplings earning honorable mentions. After much experimentation, we settled on an ideal mixture of condiments: cilantro, green onion, salt, and grilled chili and mushroom sauce.
Although we enjoyed the hot pot experience, I suspect we’ll only return for it once or twice a year. It’s somewhat pricey (about $50 for the soup base and a handful of ingredients, enough to serve three), time consuming (so not ideal for a quick lunch), and laborious (but, again, we’re aware that other people may enjoy the labor). More than any of those factors, however, the reason we won’t return regularly is that we can’t get the familiar, unique dishes we so often crave. And the lazy Susans are gone!
Our old favorites are available at Little Szechuan’s two other locations: one is right off the (very crowded) East Bank of the University of Minnesota, and the other is part of an outdoor mall in St. Louis Park. While we’ve eaten at both of these places, the experience just isn’t the same (and the food at both spots has been even more inconsistent than at the original location). So when Little Szechuan’s management blithely tells long-time customers to go to the Minneapolis or St. Louis Park locations for the old menu, they fail to recognize the importance of place — for various reasons, many long-time customers (us included) fell for the stripped-down spot in the Little Mekong business district; it was “our” Szechuan restaurant. It’s where we gorged on Dan Dan noodles, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and proudly took out-of-towners. We loved burning our innards with spicy food and then heading down Dale Street for soft serve at Conny’s Creamy Cone.
The place that we adored is now gone, replaced with a very good hot pot restaurant. While we’ll likely strike up a friendship with the new joint, we’ll continue to mourn the end of the committed, topsy-turvy relationship we had with the original Little Szechuan.
Little Szechuan Hot Pot
Hot Pot in St. Paul
422 University Ave W
Saint Paul, MN 55103
BAR: Beer and Wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes