Bites Nearby: Big Memories in Little Szechwan
Does this timeless Highland Park restaurant hold up to childhood memories?
Sometimes an egg roll is just an egg roll.
Often, however, we forget just how deep our relationships with food can go. Our choices about what and when to eat factor into everything, whether we're celebrating or mourning, and the associations form early on. The verbal shorthand we all share recalls the comforts of childhood when we talk about food "just like mom used to make," and it can express our deepest anxieties when we sometimes, unfortunately, "worry about where our next meal is going to come from."
I knew my next meal was going to come from Little Szechwan. My companion for this meal was a Highland Park native who often came here with her family as a child. She remembered only a few things: the weird Disney figurines that had inexplicably been placed in the giant fish tank at the front of the restaurant, and that she loved the place. She wasn't sure if she thought Little Szechwan would be as great as an adult, but that's what we came to find out.
We started with the appetizer she remembered loving, the $6 scallion pancakes. The thin, crispy slices of dough were lightly fried and infused with just the right amount of mild onion. My companion created a combination of soy sauce, red chili paste and vinegar on a side plate to dip them in. The pancakes soaked up the salty concoction and tasted delicious.
We next tried the seafood potstickers, also $6. Eight steamed, bite-sized treats were brought to us. Bursting with fat pieces of shrimp, the potstickers were tasty and satisfying. Also great was the $7 crab rangoon. The popular American-Chinese appetizer is easy for a restaurant to cut corners in preparing, but this example featured a generous crab meat and cream cheese mixture. Just as good was the accompanying sweet and sour sauce, in which we thought we detected a bit of carmelized peach. This was an excellent sign from the kitchen: homemade sauces.
Moving on to the entrees, we were charmed by the table side Mu Shu service. We ordered the chicken Mu Shu, $10, and our waiter prepared our crepes as we watched, brushing a dollop of purple plum sauce onto them with a flourish. The messy, rolled food dripped everywhere as I ate it, and the huge portions ensured a delicious lunch for the following day. We decided to try a classic next, and ordered the Mongolian Beef, $13. With tender filet mignon in a bed of rice, mushrooms and onions cooked together in a white wine and ginger sauce, the dish was delicious enough to keep me nipping at it long after I was full.
Even after a string of great dishes, we were perhaps most excited for what was last. It used to be that Little Szechwan would serve fortune cookies in a plate with dry ice, creating kind of a steaming effect. With a sense of anticipation, we waited as they brought us our fortune cookies, and...no dry ice. Our waiter told us that their dry ice provider was no longer in business. But after a great meal like that, we weren't too disappointed.
I asked my companion how she felt about Little Szechwan as an adult. She was relieved that it lived up to her childhood memories. In a business where things change so easily -- chefs move on, vendors come and go, restaurants change their menus to cut costs -- it was a relief to know that something great had stayed great.