“How adventurous do we want to be?” Maria asks. “On a scale of one to 10?” She’s poring over the menus at Lao Sze Chuan and says it’s so authentic, some of these dishes aren’t found in Chinatown in New York City. Diced rabbit with peanuts. Hot and Sour eel with cellophane noodles. Pork intestines with blood cake.
“We have to have frog’s legs,” she says. “And the clams.” She starts making a list.
Donna and Mark’s list is already on their ipod. They’ve been looking at Lao Sze Chuan’s menu online since three in the afternoon. Maria passes me her list. Yes, the spicy ox-tongue and tripe is on it and I’m happy not to make more decisions. The menus – two of them, the main large, multi-plastic-paged booklet and the additional four page menu of Szechuan specialties -- are overwhelming. Pages and pages of intriguing descriptions like “Silky fowl with black mushrooms and bamboo shoots in casserole.”
I pass Maria’s list to my husband, who glazes over at the sight of her tiny script of five appetizers and 11 entrees. He passes it to Donna and Mark. They cross-reference against their i-Pod list, and add a couple dishes to the feast. Yes! The pig’s ear.
There’s nothing like dining with the right group of people at the right place, and our crew of 10 is excited about our adventure to the commercial belly of Route 1 Milford to see if Lao Sze Chuan makes the most authentic Szechuan cuisine in Connecticut.
Though its strip mall location and bare-bones atmosphere aren’t a tip-off, Lao is part of a small chain started by Chef Tony Hu, who made a splash in Chicago with four Chinese restaurants devoted to the concept of “gourmet authentic.” Lao Sze Chuan in Milford is his only restaurant in Connecticut.
We order Tsingtao beers , and soon appetizers are placed on the lazy Susan in the middle of our table in the back corner. The first dish to arrive, spicy ox tongue and tripe, is the knockout of the evening. A cold dish of wide ribbons of tongue and ruffled, translucent tripe, slicked with red-orange chili oil, scattered with peanuts and cilantro, it has a tingling heat, soft, chewy and crunchy textures and a touch of sweetness. Seriously good inducer of next-day cravings.
Pig’s ear is sliced as thin as charcuterie. Translucent layers of cartilage, meat, skin. Dressed in red chili oil, it has a pleasing soft crunch. It’s another big hit at our table. “This is the best pig’s ear I’ve ever had,” says Maria, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to New York when she was 10. It’s the only pigs ear I’ve ever and I love it.
Maria’s son, 17-year-old Dillon, loves the scallion pancakes. So do our youthful initiates, Kim, 15, and Chris, 23. Chris says his adventure level is a “Five.” Dillon shows Chris how to use chopsticks. “These kinds of dinners,” he advises, “It’s best not to question.” The young people crunch on Shanghai spring rolls. Dig into fried dumplings. And as the lazy susan offers platters of braised tofu with minced pork, pea shoots with garlic sauce, and Szechuan wild pepper with frog’s legs, they get adventurous too. And discover it isn’t that freaky. “It tastes like chicken,” Kim says.
“Frog’s legs are halfway between chicken and fish,” Dillon explains to Kim, who’s now enjoying another creature of land and sea – the moist, steamed duck.
Dishes are crammed onto the lazy susan so tight the waiter hesitates, trying to fit another, yes, another platter of food, on our table. Maria, readjusts the dishes, finds room.
Bold flavors are the defining characteristic of Lao Sze Chuan. If you’re looking for Americanized-Chinese food, or want to adjust the recipes to your allergic and digestive issues, they’ll do it for you. But, I say, save the seats and tables for the 80 percent Asian customer base and the rest of us adventurous mongrels.
Along with the organ meat and odd bits ingredients, I am struck by how many of the meat and seafood entrees are balanced by vegetables. Some highlights of our feast:
Dong Po Pork Shank off the bone. Meltingly soft and tender in a sauce hinting of five-spice powder. A mass of pliable meat, which we pull from its soft casing of skin and fat with tongs or chopsticks, then dip into wilted spinach, tender-crisp carrots, snow peas, bamboo shoots and silky-soft, fresh, shitake mushrooms.
Twice-cooked pork with Szechuan pepper and chives. Thin slices of braised pork belly stir-fried with green leaves that look like leeks, but were more tender. (I haven’t yet identified this member of the allium family.)
Chinese Eggplant in garlic sauce. Soft and slightly smoky, this meaty vegetable has Mark, who doesn’t like eggplant, diving in for more. “I don’t even eat eggplant,” he says, amazed. Donna adds, “I’ve never seen you eat it.”
Clams with Wild Pepper. Tender, juicy clams, peppery broth. Marred only by many broken shells.
Pea shoots with garlic. The kitchen was out of water spinach, but substituted pea shoots. Simple, refreshing and green.
Steamed dumplings in chili oil. Thin, relaxed, floppy, slithery wrappers enclosing flavorful pork filling, dressed in spicy chili oil.
Braised tofu with minced pork. Light, airy fried tofu.
Loa Szechuan tofu with crabmeat, prawn, scallop and bok choy. Here the tofu is cloud-like blobs in a luxurious dish of tender seafood (the crab is imitation) and vegetables. Baby bok choy gives a clean counterpoint to the richness.
Kung Pao chicken. Maria orders this mildly spicy dish for the unadventurous, but even the adventurous say it is an excellent version of this take-out standard. “The meat’s tender and the sauce is light. It isn’t gloppy,” Michael says.
Less thrilling to me is the beef in spicy orange sauce. The big pieces of beef, coated and fried and tossed in sweet-spicy sauce, are the chewiest and driest things on the table.
As we all slow down, and sit back in our seats with that feeling we cannot eat another bite, Maria says, “Oh, they didn’t serve us the jelly fish with scallion sauce!”
“Next time!” we beg, viewing the lazy susan that will send all of us home with lunch tomorrow.
What do you think of the overall experience? I ask our table. “Quite good,” says a self-professed food snob. “Phenomenal,” says Donna. Of Chinese-Jamaican heritage, she grew up eating Chinese food in Flushing, Queens.
“I’d come back in an instant,” says my husband. And Lao Sze Chuan is affordable. The tab is $36 per person, with tax, tip and two Tsingtao’s for each adult.
Warning: Lao Sze Chuan is not a large restaurant, and it’s popular. Our reservation for 7:30 on a Saturday night requires a half-hour wait. The waiters and waitresses are gracious as they dart, with trays of food, around our big group. We are clearly in the way, and they are very nice about it.
“Oh, too busy,” says a waitress. “But that’s good, right?” my husband says. “Not all at one time!” she says.
With that in mind, I suggest checking out Lao Sze Chuan at non-peak hours.
They are open Mon-Fri. 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 4:30 to 10 p.m.
Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Go there with adventurous eaters rather than “diners.” Lao is all about the food. There’s only problem with it.
“It should be in Norwalk!” Maria says. From her voice to Chef Tony Hu’s ears.
1585 Boston Post Rd, Milford, CT 06460, 203 783-0558