Lines of people, some seated in plastic chairs, waiting in front of a small Sichuan restaurant along West Valley Boulevard. This has become a common sight. Except we're not referring to Chengdu Taste this time. Located several blocks to the west, Szechuan Impression opened recently and quickly established itself as a contender.
Szechuan Impression takes an approach that's increasingly popular in the SGV: restaurants with nice décor, slightly pricier food (well, by SGV standards), quality ingredients and trained chefs — in the case of Szechuan Impression, from a five-star Chengdu hotel. All of which provides a much-needed middle ground between sticky-tabled, mom-and-pop places and the opulent Cantonese palaces that dim sum restaurants can become for dinner service. In other words, a nice dining experience to go with great food while retaining the feel of home cooking.
About the food. Szechuan Impression features Chengdu-style cuisine, which, while still plenty spicy, is generally less so than that from Sichuan province's other major city, Chongqing. The "leg-crossingly yum beef" is a cauldron full of thinly sliced beef and a tuber. It might seem bland — albeit refreshing — unless you follow the instructions of your server, to drag the beef slices through a saucer filled with chile powder and assorted goodies.
Arrive early and you might be fortunate enough to get one of only 20 daily orders of Bobo chicken: chicken parts, including offal, served on long sticks. Think fondue, only dipped in a broth filled with peppers and sliced lotus root. If you're not into spicy, not to worry, as there are less pepper-packed alternatives, including a milder broth for the Bobo chicken.
There's more. Classic "potato strips on street corner," which are crinkle-cut fries dusted with red pepper flakes, Sichuan numbing pepper and served with diced red peppers and cilantro. The UP2U stir-fry series is seasonal vegetables flash-fried in a wok with your choice of add-ins (we suggest the red pepper).
Another unique feature of Szechuan Impression is a focus on dessert items, such as the fried rice cake with black sugar, a rectangular glutinous rice cake served in a black sugar sauce and topped with peanut powder, or the wonderfully named Cinderella's pumpkin rides, a dense pumpkin cake. Additional dessert items are planned.
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If you've been to Chengdu Taste, some of the menu items will look familiar, such as toothpick lamb, bite-sized pieces of cumin and peppered lamb served skewered on toothpicks. In the SGV Chinese restaurant scene, imitation is the sincerest form of business, with knockoff restaurants attempting to replicate successful ones. Since Chengdu Taste opened last summer, Sichuan-style eateries have multiplied. Szechuan Impression is far more than an imitator; it's a truly destination-worthy restaurant.
Note: The menu is being revamped this week, with some items being added and others dropped.