Szechuan Impression opened its doors two months ago in Alhambra, one of the latest in a wave of Sichuan restaurants that have graced Los Angeles in the past year. Behind the latest hot eatery are owners Kelly Xiao and Lynn Liu. “Lynn is really good at cooking. I’m really good at eating,” Xiao jokes.
The women, who used to be affiliated with Chengdu Taste down the street, started Impression as a passion project. Their goal: to give folks an impression of the Sichuan they grew up in.
“We want to push forward Chengdu’s favorite dishes, not just the familiar ones.” Xiao says. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan and the hometown of both Xiao and Liu. “We only have a couple of typical Sichuan dishes that most people in America are familiar with.”
She points to the kung pao chicken, boiled fish fillets, and braised beef on the menu. “These are the three classic traditions,” she says. “We don’t even have mapo tofu.”
Impression’s menu is 67 items long. Ingredients are handpicked by Liu and brought in daily, and a portion of the menu is centered on seasonal vegetables. The rest are dishes that are currently trending in Chengdu. The Leshan cross-legged beef, for one, is one of Xiao’s favorite. It’s offal cooked in an herbal broth, paired with a chile sauce for dipping on the side.
Called leshan qiaojiao niurou in Chinese, it was invented in the 1930s during a time when there was a lot of sickness among the Chinese population. In the city of Leshan (which is near Chengdu) an herbal medicine man noticed that people were throwing beef offal into the river. He thought it was a shame, decided to retrieve it, and cooked it into an herbal soup. This soup proved effective into preventing illnesses and it rose in popularity. Lines formed and those who didn’t have seats would just eat outside and sit cross-legged on the streets — hence the name, cross-legged beef.
The menu reads like a Chinese storybook. Cross-legged beef is one of many examples. Another one is the ice jelly dessert, known as bingfener, which dates back to the Qing Dynasty and is made from the nicandra physalodes plant and has a texture kind of like Jell-O. It's clear and plain but accented with fermented rice and brown sugar water for flavor, and Impression tops it off with a sprig of mint. “I like to tell people the fullness of life requires a little sweetness after spice,” Xiao says.
Legend has it that a little girl, who was known for her sweet disposition and looks, discovered the ice jelly. She lived in what’s currently Pengshan County in Sichuan, and was picking pears when the pulp of the nicandra physalodes fruit accidentally fell into her bag. When she got home, she noticed the clear pulp, tasted it, and added in brown sugar and water because the jelly in itself didn’t have much flavor. The girl started selling the dessert and soon enough, Pengshan County became known as the place to buy ice jelly from a little girl named Wei Yuan.
“We really want to teach people about the culinary traditions in Sichuan,” Xiao says. “This is authentic Sichuanese food made by Sichuanese people.”
That Sichuanese force at Impression is Tony Lai, a long-time Chengdu chef and a graduate of The Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. “Sichuan cooking is all about feeling,” Lai says. “It’s hard to write it down in a recipe. You have to use smells and temperature as indicators of when to put in certain spices. Lai has been around food his entire life; his father was also a Sichuanese chef.
Lai’s kitchen is stockpiled with containers of spices, most of which have been directly imported from Hanyuan, a county in Sichuan known for its peppers and spices. And yes, Impression has a stockpile of Sichuan peppercorns.
“The Sichuan peppercorn is an acquired taste,” Xiao admits. The peppercorn is a spice unique to Sichuanese cooking. It’s actually not even a pepper at all; it’s in the citrus family. The spice looks like miniature pearls, cracked and crumbly, colored purple and brown. There’s a lemony undertone, and if you get a big enough mouthful, it will numb your tongue.
Xiao is especially conscientious of people’s reaction to the peppercorn, especially first-timers. “A lot of people are scared of it, but it’s a part of Chengdu,” she says.
And Chengdu is represented well in her restaurant. “A lot of people think Sichuan food is just hot and numbing. But a good Sichuan restaurant has a combination of flavors in their dishes,” she says.
She adds: “If you go to Chengdu, you taste all of Sichuan.”
And if you go to Szechuan Impression, you’ll taste all of Chengdu.