There is a fine line between nostalgic and dated. Any restaurant that can manage to walk that line and succeed is okay in my book. I’ve written numerous times about restaurants such as Little Szechuan—places that are stuck in the time they were built. When it comes to actual sit-down Chinese restaurants, there are few and far between in this area. I mean actual Chinese, not Asian fusion. The closest to me, and perhaps most well-known, is Middletown’s Crown Palace.
But I was there several years ago and the food was bland and decor drab. It was a far cry from what I remembered as a child, and nowhere near what was my favorite of them all: Ruby Palace in Holmdel. So when my friend Patrick said that he knew of a place that was similar to my idea of “old school” Chinese food, I needed to give it a try. We ate there for dinner last month before one of our ghost hunting adventures at the museum.
We walked in and I could tell this place was from the 1980’s (built in 1981 I later read online). But it was not a negative observation. It was still clean and well-kept; holding its own. The place-mats on the table colored in glorious red and yellow detailed the Chinese zodiac. These too were printed in the 80’s. I imagine someone eating here 30 years ago would have had the same exact sight as me, if not for the change in prices and smartphones that now pop up at every table. Patrick has been eating here with his family for years. I trusted his recommendation. The meal was off to a good start, with a bowl of those ubiquitous fried noodles, duck sauce, and mustard. Oh, and there’s the hot tea as well.
What to order? We started off with a bowl each of wonton soup and then shared a plate of steamed dumplings. The dumplings and wontons were clearly homemade. The wontons were chewy, in a good way, resting in hot beef broth that had a bit more flavor than I am used to. As for the dumplings, they were the opposite: not chewy at all, but fluffy and airy—kind of like little pillows that had been stuffed with pork. These must have been served immediately out of the steamer to achieve this texture, before they would turn into cold globs within a few minutes. They brought over another bowl with a special kind of dipping sauce for them which was just delightful.
As for meals, Patrick had the beef with broccoli which is his usual. For me, I decided to get something that I have not had in years. Something that every takeout joint manages to screw up: orange-flavor beef. The last couple times I ordered it, the beef was nothing more than deep-fried balls of fat coated in a shiny, sugary glaze meant to hide an inferior meat. I figured this was as good a place as any to try it. Had it not been good here, I would have waved the white flag and never ordered it again. When it arrived, I was impressed. The picture does not do the amount of meat given any justice. Rather than little chunks and pieces of fat, these instead were whole slices. So large they were, in fact, that using chopsticks on them was difficult. I did not notice any fat whatsoever. This was lean, sliced, steak with not much of a batter on them. I had also asked for extra spicy, and they delivered with the heat dialed up via a couple extra chili peppers. The sauce was shiny and sugary, but the flavor was there. Oh MSG, how I adore thee. This was as old-school as you can get. The best orange beef I have had since a trip to Chinatown many years ago. I could not help but think how much my dad would have enjoyed this.
When we were done, I looked over at the table next to us. They had ordered Mu Shu, and the waiter was preparing it table-side by filling the thin pancakes with the shredded vegetables and meat. No place does that anymore, except maybe in the cities. What’s not to like about Little Szechuan? If you are like me, it may bring back memories even if you have never eaten there before. I am going to give them a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I had no complaints about the food. None whatsoever. The place was packed and judging from the amount of takeout orders they were sending out the door, this is clearly Little Silver’s number one choice for Chinese food.
Little Szechuan is located at 485 Prospect Avenue in Little Silver, New Jersey.