The Elusive Vegetarian Sichuan (or Szechuan) Food of Los Angeles

UPDATE 4/24/17: Since first writing this article in 2015, another Sichuan restaurant arrived on the L.A. food scene. This time, a west coast extension of a major player in Chicago's Chinatown. Lao Sze Chuan in Glendale is a solid choice for spicy classics like mapo tofu, string beans in spicy black bean sauce, eggplant in garlic sauce, and Szechuan green bean jelly noodles.

Sichuan food is the kind of spicy that makes you regret choices. It's usually strongly flavored and can contain any number of common elements such as fermented black beans, ginger, garlic, cilantro, green onions, various dried and fresh chilis, chili oils, Chinese black vinegar, and Szechuan peppercorns. The latter is both significant and peculiar.

Sichuan pepper (or Sichuan oil) is a fragrantly floral spice referred to by a bazillion other names that I won't get into. The most important thing to know is that it's an ingredient unlike any other for what it does to your mouth. It numbs it, like Novocaine. In Chinese, the sensation is called mala (pronounced mah lah), written 麻辣.

"Sechuan pepper" by Max Ronnersjö 

"Sechuan pepper" by Max Ronnersjö 

Unlike Novocaine, authentic mala style Sichuan food not only numbs your mouth, it singes off your tastebuds, makes your nose run, makes you cry, and reduces your hearing by about 50%. It's masochism. And it's a cuisine that's incredibly hot right now...if you'll pardon the pun.

Vegetarian Sichuan food can be difficult to find in the U.S., with most restaurants focusing on meat and fish. That's not to say there aren't a lot of vegetables used, but they're usually accompanied by meat or meat infused sauces. If you find a vegetable dish, ask the server that it be prepared without meat. And, as with any non-veg restaurant, I'd suggest asking if the dishes have any hidden meat-based flavoring like chicken broth or oyster sauce.

We recently visited Chuan's in Temple City, California. Los Angeles has seen an influx of Sichuan restaurants in recent years, and Chuan's probably has the most vegetarian friendly options. Chengdu Taste is immensely popular for Sichuan food but, from what I can tell, they are not very veggie friendly.

Chuan's is uncommonly well decorated, with rustic furniture and an attention to detail that's made possible when you're backed by a humongous multi-national corporation. For more on that, read the Eater LA article about the fascinating legacy of restaurateur, Mr. He Nong.

Chuans_decor_1
Chuans_decor_2
Chuans_decor_3
Chuans_decor_4

We ordered Mapo Tofu ($8.99), Clay Pot Bean Noodle (listed on the receipt as Blossom Vermicelli Pot, $14.99), Avocado with Pepper ($8.99), and Flavored Bean Jelly ($5.99). For the tofu we specifically asked that it be prepared without meat, which they were happy to oblige. The menu has other veggie items, including a vegetarian tofu soup that we didn't try.

The Mapo Tofu, normally one of my all time favorite dishes, had plenty of spice, but it was lacking that all-important mala sensation- surprising for a Sichuan restaurant. Unfortunately, it was also a bit overpowered by the pungent fermented black bean. I like some black bean, but this was unbalanced. We took it home and doctored it with Sichuan oil and our favorite vegetable bouillon.

Chuan's Mapo Tofu

The Avocado with Pepper dish, on the other hand, was absolutely addicting. The slices of avocado are well-salted, heaped with chopped raw jalapeño pepper, and drizzled with chili oil. This was like nothing I've had before. It was a fresh and lively dish to eat with rice; and, despite the peppers, was milder than the tofu.

Chuan's Avocado with Pepper

Chuan's "Flavored Bean Jelly", a common Chinese cold noodle appetizer known as liangfen or 凉粉, was richly flavored with pronounced black vinegar and generous chili oil. Like the tofu, however, I was craving the fragrant mala taste that I've come to expect from this dish. Still, the jelly was made well—firm enough that it doesn't break in your chopsticks—and I would certainly order it again.

If you've never tried this dish and are curious about "bean jelly", check out this descriptive liang fen recipe on the Flavor Explosions blog.

Chuan's Flavored Bean Jelly

Chuan's Flavored Bean Jelly

Our final dish is listed on the menu as Clay Pot Bean Noodle. It's another common Chinese dish, with the noodles sometimes referred to as 'vermicelli'. This is a simple and non-spicy dish of clear mung bean noodles stir-fried with cabbage, egg, green onion, and sesame oil. While not as highly flavored, it's a welcome respite from the three other mouth-punishers.

Chuan's Blossom Vermicelli Pot (Clay Pot Bean Noodle)

While I'm certainly glad Chuan's exists as an L.A. vegetarian Sichuan option, I can't help but compare it to our beloved Lao restaurants by Chicago chef Tony Hu. Chef Hu runs an empire of restaurants, each specializing in a certain regional Chinese cuisine. But of them all, he does Sichuan like he's a mind-reader: he knows exactly what I want. If you're ever in Chicago, don't miss Chinatown. It's one of Chicago's most spectacular neighborhoods—truly world-class cuisine—and I miss it terribly.

P.S. You might see "Sichuan" also spelled "Szechuan". It is correctly pronounced tsih-chwahn rather than the common mispronunciation seh-shwahn. The word refers to a large region of Central China, with a large diversity of food and culture. Saying Sichuan food is therefore rather vague and not necessarily synonymous with dragon-slaying spiciness.

P.P.S. Dear Yelp reviewers: Choosing a Sichuan restaurant for dinner and then complaining that it's too spicy and oily is like going to McDonalds and complaining that they serve french fries. Know before you go and don't ding a restaurant for doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing. You make yourself look stupid and, more importantly, you unfairly affect a restaurant's ratings. Yelp ratings are a big deal to those hard-working folks.