Szechuan Impression is not the first exciting Sichuan restaurant to open in Alhambra recently. That distinction belongs to Chengdu Taste, which opened in June 2013 to salivating and swooning and wait times of up to two hours. It was followed by a second Chengdu Taste, which opened last month to only slightly less rapture and slightly shorter wait times. Szechuan Impression found its moment in between those sister restaurants, opening in July. And lo, there was much rejoicing.
It may be only be the beginning. Money is pouring into the United States from China and particularly Sichuan province, with the San Gabriel Valley proving a spectacularly attractive location for Chinese capital. The Chinese are paying cash for houses and investing in businesses. All signs point to the beginning of a Sichuan restaurant boom in L.A.
Like Chengdu Taste, Szechuan Impression usually has a crowd milling around outside waiting for a table; unlike Chengdu Taste, the staff genuinely seems to care about the comfort of these folks, consulting earnestly about wait times and even passing around a large platter of watermelon slices.
The polished room, with wooden tables and carefully chosen blue-and-white ceramic tableware, denotes a certain youthful attention to style that has been fairly uncommon in SGV Chinese restaurant culture, outside of the much stuffier grandiosity of dim sum houses. The menus here are printed on thick paper and presented in heavy binders, and dishes have names like "legcrossingly yum beef."
That fresh spirit comes from Lynn Liu and Kelly Xiao, the restaurant's young owners. Their aims for Szechuan Impression are very specific: They hope to bring the food that people grew up eating in the southwestern Chinese province to this corner of the southwestern United States, with an updated feel to appeal to younger diners. Chef Tony Lai, whom they've brought in to run the kitchen, is here after running upscale hotel kitchens in Chengdu.
Plenty here will set your mouth and heart ablaze, in the true Sichuan style. But there's also nostalgia and subtlety at play, much more than you'd typically find on a menu with these origins.
Look around the room upon entering and you'll see three-fourths of the tables with a vat of red liquid, a shock of wooden skewers protruding like a culinary game of pick-up-sticks. This would be the bo bo chicken, Szechuan Impression's most popular dish, in which all manner of chicken bits (except the ones you might easily recognize) are skewered and simmered in a chile-laced chicken broth. You might also find lotus root and cauliflower on the end of your skewer, but the vehicle is not nearly as important as the broth itself, which tingles with a chile heat that is almost floral.
If you love heat, or even just extremity, many dishes here will blow your palate out in a blaze of masochistic gratification, such as the boiled fish in red chili, or the "old-school hot pot starch noodle," which presents clear rice noodles and bean sprouts in a chile sauce so salty that the heat is ramped up along with it.
More interesting are the dishes that rely less on the urgent sting of overpowering flavors, or pair those flavors with quieter pleasures. The fish with green pepper shows the famous Sichuan peppercorn's intensely aromatic side, and offers a purity of that flavor that is usually hard to detect through its numbing heat. Of course, if you bite into one of the peppercorns dotting the dish, you will get the sizzle and buzz you might expect, but the soft green broth in which the white fish swims has a light perfume, exotic and otherworldly, like springtime in some far-off galaxy.
Or take the Zizong spicy rabbit, named for a city in the south of Sichuan province, which comes in a liquid the familiar color of hot lava but holds in its mildly fiery clutches tender baby zucchini and delicate wisps of shaved ginger along with small, bony nubs of rabbit meat. It's the ginger that ends up defining the dish, its aromatic bouquet the thing that keeps you dipping back into the copper wok even when the rabbit is long gone.
There are tastes of a Chengdu childhood here, in the "potato strips on street corner": crinkle-cut potatoes that are almost still crunchy, served in a shower of chili and cilantro. It's pure nostalgia for those who grew up on the snack, and it has universal kid food appeal, as long as you like your kid food spicy.
You can get a giant mound of chili crabs and a pair of plastic gloves with which to manhandle them, or a huge pile of duck tongues if it's a duck tongue kind of day. Or go for the relative safety of "farm chicken in chili oil," remarkably tender chicken hacked up and drowned in chili and peanuts. It might be one of the tamest dishes here but it's also one of the best, the kitchen's talent for subtlety (or at least as subtle as you can get when cooking something smothered in chili) on full display.
For folks who really love lamb, there's lamb dipped in a steamed rice powder and served with pumpkin, which pulls no punches in its musky, lamb-y glory. The steamed rice flour coating, though, is slightly gluey rather than crisp or dry. If you like your lamb a little less funky, the toothpick lamb is wonderful, and a tad more subtle in its cumin and chili content than elsewhere.
There is no ma po tofu, no dan dan noodles. Instead there are fat slippery dumplings, which are billed as "honest and authentic" and have a sauce so garlic-rich it will clear your soul of impurities.
It's worth gambling on the oddly beguiling dessert (which is listed among the appetizers) called "fried rice cake with black sugar" — a Jenga-like stack of sweet rice cubes sitting in a pool of black syrup and blitzed with heaps of malty soy powder. Like much of the food here, you need about one-12th of the plate to satisfy, but satisfy it does.
Is it worth waiting outside on the sidewalk to get to this food? Sure, if you're into that type of thing. But here's a hint: The lines are far shorter at lunchtime, and most nights before 6:30 as well, though you may have to share a long, wooden table with a group of happy teenagers digging into a vat of bo bo chicken.
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They have good reason to be happy. To have Szechuan Impression plus two locations of Chengdu Taste open within such a short time frame seems like extreme good fortune for Alhambra and all of Los Angeles.
And if this is just the first wave of a new Sichuan influx, all the better. It's a very good beginning.
See also: Our photo gallery of Szechuan Impression
SZECHUAN IMPRESSION | Three stars | 1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra | (626) 283-4622 | Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m. | Entrees, $9.99-$23.99 | No alcohol | Street parking