There tend to be two kinds of Chinese-American restaurants around here: small, neighborhood spots and bigger institutions. The former typically offer food that ranges from the unremarkable to the excruciating; the latter can be good (even excellent), but they are still quite chef-driven (as opposed to being institutionally robust), and can turn on a dime when a talented cook departs for another kitchen. In addition to the grandly ambitious Peking Garden in the Midway area of St. Paul, we’ve fallen into a wary alliance with Tea House and Hong Kong Noodle, two U of M East Bank spots that seem to be catering to international students as much as (or more than) the local clientele, much to the benefit of the food.
Add to that list a third campus spot: the relatively new Lao Sze Chuan, located just around the corner from the other two. Unlike its peers, Lao Sze Chuan is part of a small national chain originating in Chicago, and this promises real long-term consistency and stability.
We discovered Lao Sze Chuan on Bite Squad and fell immediately in love with their Moo Shu Pork ($14.45). It’s hard to find a good version of the dish, so when you do, it registers. Moo shu pork tends to go wrong in two distinct but often complementary ways. It can be far too wet — essentially a pile of gloppy dampness. And it can be essentially flavorless, a mass of neutral nothingness, enriched only by the hoisin that it’s served with. Another not-so-unusual problem: cheap, terminally stale “pancakes” that taste of dust and disappointment.
Lao Sze Chuan’s version is supple but not drowning in liquid, and it tastes primarily of carrots, nicely seasoned scrambled eggs, and delicate, tender strips of pork. A mushroomy earthiness permeates the dish, and the four large pancakes that accompany it (pictured above) are sufficient to enjoy through a full meal (as opposed to the three or even two medium-sized or small pancakes that other places will sometimes grudgingly supply).
Author’s Note: On a lark, we made our own Mandarin pancakes to accompany our moo shu and found them to be deliciously chewy and a good fit for the dish. Take 2 cups of all purpose flour, make a well, and stir in ¾ cup of boiling water until a rough dough forms. Knead until the dough is smooth and stretchy, 5-10 minutes; then rest it under a damp cloth for 15 minutes. Roll out to ¼-inch thick, and then use a glass (or any 2½-inch-diameter circle) to cut out 16-24 discs. Line up the discs in two rows, and paint half the discs with sesame oil on one side. Put together pairs of discs (with sesame oil in the middle, like a sandwich), and then roll them out to about 5-6 inches in diameter. Cook them in a preheated, ungreased, saute pan at medium heat for 30-60 seconds a side, until they have brown spots, and then peel apart the two pancakes. Place them on a plate under tinfoil, and serve with the moo shu pork. (Adapted from a recipe in Foods of the World: Chinese Cooking).
Lao Sze Chuan, 317 Huron Blvd SE, Minneapolis; 612.379.1983