May 20, 2011

Food Fight: Lao Sze Chuan has got it goin' on

This is the first installment of Food Fight, a competition we're having to find next year's food columnists. We will make our decision based on a combination of reader and Maroon editor feedback. Give us a comment to voice your opinon!

Some friends and I recently ventured to Chinatown’s well-known Lao Sze Chuan. We were convinced by our friends raving about its Ma Po Tofu and their claims that we could order any Chinese dish that we could think of from the restaurant’s extensive menu. I have definitely been convinced of the greatness of its Ma Po Tofu. It is some of the best I have ever had.

The restaurant was busy even on a Tuesday night, and we’re told that 20 to 30-minute waits are never uncommon. Even so, the restaurant wasn’t too noisy. After going through the ordeal of deciding what to eat—every time I turned a page of the menu I found something that looked even better than what I’d previously chosen—we were served complimentary spicy cabbage to tide us over during the short wait for our main dishes. The large flecks of red chili pepper generously sprinkled over the cabbage were harbingers of a very substantial spicy kick, but it mellowed out to reveal the nice woodsy flavor of the cabbage itself, and it had a satisfying crunch.

The food arrived once the spicy cabbage had become a pleasant memory. Everything we ordered was delicious, and there were no disappointing dishes among them. We did notice a trend, though; while the spicier dishes were standouts, the plainer dishes were not as good. The green tea, while bland, cut through the spiciness of the food and was a perfect palate cleanser without drying out the mouth like many other green teas I’ve had. Also, though our food was brought out promptly and still warm, most of the dishes were somewhat colder than desirable, most likely indicating that the quick turnaround comes from precooking elements of the dishes.

Our particular favorites were the Ma Po Tofu and the Sze Chuan Beef Tenderloin, both dishes that I would order again in a heartbeat. The Ma Po Tofu was the spiciest of the dishes we ordered and had a wonderful bite to the sauce, along with creamy chunks of perfectly cooked tofu. The Sze Chuan Beef Tenderloin was amazing: It had a satisfying amount of tender meat, with flawlessly cooked vegetables giving a nice sweetness to the dish. It was coated with a sauce that, unlike most of the other ones, started out mild and then built up to a pleasant spiciness.

We ended up with leftovers despite eating as much as we could. It’s a testament to Lao Sze Chuan that they were all gone within a day. We passed on ordering dessert at the restaurant, as the selection was sparse and unappealing, and chose instead to get bubble tea from one of the many excellent shops in the area, something I would urge those who like to end their meals on a sweet note to do as well.

Lao Sze Chuan is somewhat pricier than some of the other restaurants in Chinatown, and there is a one-dollar surcharge per person for rice, but it’s not so much more that going here will break the bank. All told, Lao Sze Chuan is worth the trip in every way.