What do Chicago, Las Vegas and downtown Glendale have in common?
They’re all now home to outlets of Lao Sze Chuan, celebrity chef Tony Hu’s popular Sichuan restaurant, which has been the standard-bearer for Chinese cooking in the Midwest for the last decade or so.
Since opening his first restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown, Hu has built an empire around his spicy, lip-tingling cuisine, which includes 10 or so restaurants in the Chicago area, one in Vegas’ Palms casino and a recent expansion to downtown Glendale.
Yet as heavily decorated as Hu’s restaurants are, they’ve experienced turbulence in the past year or two. There was an FBI raid on one of his restaurants in 2014, a brief closure by the Department of Health and a sale of one of his concepts, Lao Beijing. At Lao Sze Chuan in Glendale, however, none of this drama is readily apparent. The space is modern and comfortable, and servers are tactful enough to please customers trying “real” Chinese for the first time, as well as those who fancy themselves experts in SGV Chinese food.
A meal here starts with a free appetizer of spicy pickled cabbage, which you nibble on as you peruse the menu. The list of dishes is sizable already, but a note promises that it’s only for the soft opening (“Full menu with over 500+ items coming soon!”).
Lao Ma wontons, thin-skinned dumplings awash in crushed ma la peppercorns and chile oil, arrive glowing with an aura of spice that's more pleasurable than sweat-inducing. The same heat powers the famous Chef’s Special dry chili chicken, a plateful of crispy fried chicken bits wok-tossed with dried chilis, garlic and ginger. The chicken is crispy and moist, and will disappear faster than you think, scattered among the chopped chiles. Diced green beans with preserved black beans and crispy, pan-fried chow mein were enjoyable side dishes, although both shared a common trait: a heavy dose of chili oil mixed in.
Much of the Sichuan cooking here seems solid — not quite of the level of stalwarts like Chengdu Taste and Szechuan Impression, where the peppercorn heat seems somehow brighter but also more subtle. But this is Glendale, after all, and it might make more sense to compare Lao Sze Chuan with Din Tai Fung across the street, or with Meizhou Dongpo, the Chinese import that serves high-end Sichuan food at the Century City mall.
That is to say: Tony Hu and his empire’s arrival might not have the same impact it would have had a decade ago, but even in a city that takes its Chinese food seriously, his cooking still ends up registering on the heat map.
Lao Sze Chuan, 152 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 552-8888, tonygourmetgroup.com.