I live in such a nice Minnesota world of chef-driven, farm-fresh, and artisanal foods that I often forget that most Americans still imagine our state as one big Lake Wobegon, awash in white-on-white foods. If only they knew the truth—that Minnesota is awash with the spiciest food on earth, that from the province around the Chinese city of Chengdu, where the locals go beyond the five sensations of taste—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and meaty. They add another one of such extreme spiciness it goes by the term ma la, which translates roughly as numbing and tingling. Why would you want something so spicy it’s numbing and tingling? Because it brings the other senses into higher relief. You feel more, and more deeply, with every sense. Think of it as the culinary equivalent of going into a sweat lodge for a course or two or taking a Bikram yoga class while relaxing over a beer. ¶ Minnesota’s Szechuan trend started in Plymouth with the first Tea House, gathered steam with St. Paul’s Little Szechuan, and now, with four Tea Houses, Roseville’s Szechuan, and Chanhassen’s Tian Jin, it’s safe to say that when Minnesotans says they’re going out for some Chinese food, they mean they’re going to eat Szechuan—blood-red, dripping with chili peppers. Hot! ¶ The most recent addition to this Szechuan scene is the new Szechuan Spice, which took over the former Zen Fusion space in Minneapolis’s Lyn-Lake neighborhood. It’s the best of all worlds: They retained Zen’s plain-yet-chic, black-and-purple dining room and added delicious dishes from their sister restaurant, St. Paul’s Tea House.
The must-orders abound. The soup buns—dumplings you eat with a spoon—have a tender wrapper that, with each bite, releases a burst of soup into your mouth, followed by a terrifically tender bit of classic ground-pork dumpling filling. The dan dan noodles (wheat noodles served with lettuce leaves, a hot chile oil, and fried pork) are tossed at the table to create a rich, savory, craveable balance of salt, meatiness, and spice. If you love salt-and-vinegar potato chips, the whole fish with pickled vegetables is the entrée you’ve been waiting for; the pickled mustard greens and various pickled peppers give a charming astringency. The profoundly meaty garlic eggplant—which doesn’t have any meat at all—is delightful. And, for spice lovers, something like the ma la pork intestine or beef should satisfy.
Or not. As my friend said: “Those are shredded pork intestines? This is where you and I part company.”
But he loved everything else. Dish for dish, I wouldn’t argue that Szechuan Spice is the best Szechuan restaurant in town—Little Szechuan has more amusing gonzo spicy dishes, and the Tea House in St. Paul offers more delicate food—but it just might be the best Chinese restaurant in south Minneapolis. They’ve got free parking, plus they deliver—so it can be a hot time in your own little House on the Prairie whenever you like.
More great Szechuan food in Minnesota—this time near the Minneapolis Lakes and Uptown.
Ideal Meal: Soup buns; ma po tofu; whole fish with pickled vegetables. Tip: Weekday lunch specials offer smaller, less expensive versions of most dishes, a food explorer’s delight. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday Prices: $20 a person gets a splurge of a dinner, though you can be nicely fed for less. Address: Szechuan Spice, 3016 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-353-4281, szechuanspice1.com