One of America's best Sichuan restaurants is opening a fast-casual spinoff, further cementing Sichuan food's status as L.A.'s dominant Chinese cuisine.
Sichuan Impression, a fiery San Gabriel Valley restaurant in the middle of a major expansion, is going fast-casual with a spinoff restaurant in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown. The still unnamed spinoff spot will open later this year with a menu that includes rice bowls, noodles, and cold dishes, says Ivy Wei, who’s working with Sichuan Impression on this new concept.
“Chinatown is just the start,” Wei says. “We’ll open more than one.”
The Chinatown location is at Far East Plaza, which is home to dining destinations like Roy Choi’s Chego, 2018 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year Lasa, and hot-chicken sensation Howlin' Rays. Wei, who spent more than a decade working at Yang Chow and who opened Silver Lake’s Fat Dragon, says the Sichuan fast-casual restaurant wants to attract non-Chinese guests, “but the flavors will still be traditional Sichuan.”
For example, Wei says a version of Sichuan Impression’s tea-smoked pork ribs might be on the menu, “since it’s ribs and everyone knows what ribs is. Not like a random Sichuan dish no one knows.”
Sichuan Impression, which started in Alhambra, has an Orange County location in Tustin, and is working to open a Westwood location, is the biggest player turning Sichuan food into L.A.’s dominant Chinese cuisine.
And what a cuisine it is. Sichuan food is known for its abundance of chiles and the mouth-numbing mala of its peppercorns, but there’s a lot of nuance involved, too: clean broths, perfect pickles, delightful cold dishes, and balanced flavors.
“The whole point about Sichuanese food is flavor combinations,” says Chinese-food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, who was in L.A. over the weekend for the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl’s Sichuan Summit and Dinner with Yu Bo, the avant-garde chef behind Yu’s Family Kitchen in Chengdu. “If you use the key seasonings, the principal flavor combinations, you can apply them to whatever local ingredients you have.”
So it makes sense that L.A., where stunning ingredients abound and where the chefs from Hip Hot and Sichuan Impression cooked alongside Yu Bo on Saturday, is an ideal place for Sichuan food to flourish. Wei says that the Sichuan Impression spinoff might regularly change its menu to showcase seasonal ingredients. And it’s clear that Sichuan food in L.A. isn’t just about the San Gabriel Valley anymore.
We recently enjoyed a lovely Sichuan feast with dandan noodles, toothpick lamb, double-cooked pork, boiled beef, and Sichuan sausage at Ruiji, which opened in Lomita, an inland city in L.A.’s South Bay, in late 2016. We also liked the Sichuan popcorn chicken and boiled beef we ate at GuYi, which opened in ritzy Brentwood this past March. We’ve ordered the boiled beef multiple times (yes, we really dig boiled beef) for delivery from Chengdu House, which opened in Valley Village last year. And, of course, the Westside’s Meizhou Dongpo, an outpost of an upscale China-based chain, has served respectable Sichuan food at the Westfield Century City shopping center since late 2013.
Wei says that the Westwood location of Sichuan Impression will serve the same dishes as the Alhambra flagship, which is known for showstoppers like boiled fish with rattan pepper, toothpick mutton, mapo tofu, juicy steamed chicken in chile sauce, and assorted offal dishes. There are a lot of Chinese people in Westwood, including UCLA students, who will no doubt embrace that kind of menu, she says. And while Sichuan Impression’s fast-casual spinoff will attempt to be more accessible for those not as familiar with Sichuan food, Wei, who was born and raised in China, stresses that it won’t serve Americanized Chinese food.
“We’re bringing the real flavors of Sichuan,” she says.
So, yes, expect red oil, lots of chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns. Dunlop says Sichuan food is popular with a lot of young diners in China because of the pyrotechnics involved.
“It’s just sort of, you know, sexy, exciting, dramatic food,” she says. “It’s fun, it’s Instagrammable, it’s WeChattable, these dramatic dishes. The other thing in China is that Sichuanese has a reputation for being an inexpensive cuisine. You don’t need to have sea cucumber and other expensive seafood. You can just make wontons with pork, and you get this Sichuanese dressing and they taste amazing.”
Or you can, like the Sichuan Impression fast-casual team will do for a fried chicken party at Far East Plaza on Wednesday, make la zi ji, which is diced, wok-fried chicken surrounded by chiles.
But then there’s Yu Bo, who’s been compared to Ferran Adrià and is known for his elegant tasting-menu banquets with more than 30 courses. There’s buzz about him possibly opening a restaurant in L.A., and we hear that he’s considering locations well beyond the San Gabriel Valley. Sichuan food has range, and that range is only growing.