Authentic Chinese in Connecticut? Yes indeed: Lao Szechuan

One of the nice benefits of the new board changes on Chowhound is that all of Connecticut is now lumped together, rather than Fairfield County being split off and grouped with Westchester and the rest of the NY Metro area. For me, that means I am now exposed to the fact that, apparently, there is food east of Norwalk.

In particular, this new board exposed me to the fact that despite my grumblings over a lack of good Chinese in Connecticut, there is allegedly a wonderful Szechuan restaurant just shy of New Haven in the undistinguished town of Milford. For the past few years, people have been talking on Chowhound about this little restaurant called Lao Sze Chuan serves up high-quality authentic Chinese food from Szechuan province. In the middle of Connecticut?

Upon this discovery, I and my Sinophile friend, Shawn Nelson, tricked our families to schlep up to Lao Sze Chuan for a quick weeknight meal. In terms of aesthetics, the restaurant is a step up from the typical suburban Chinese joint, as evidenced by the white table cloths and clean decor. Feeling obligated to try more than we could possibly consume, we ordered the following:

  • Ox tongue and tripe with hot sauce – $9
  • Szechuan dumplings in red chili sauce (8) – $6
  • Scallion pancakes (two orders) – $5 each
  • Fried pork dumplings (two orders) – $6
  • Breaded sole fillets with Thai sauce – $19
  • Sauteed shredded beef with Szechuan jalapeños – $13
  • Twice cooked sliced pork with Szechuan jalapeño and leek – $12
  • Chicken Lo Mein – $8 (crowd pleaser for the kiddos)
  • Sesame Chicken – $12 (also for the kiddos)
  • Bok Choy and garlic

Although I am still digesting all of this, I’ll just highlight a few of the main dishes below:

Ox tongue and tripe with hot sauce

2010 02 09_0314 To a Westerner it’s a dish that sounds daunting. But put aside the reservations because it’s one of the best cold appetizers I’ve ever had. Of all we tried, this dish best showcased the purity of the Szechuan peppercorn, in all of it’s unique tingly, lip-numbing heat. The tripe had a slight, pleasing crunch, but not chewy or tough at all. The thinly sliced ox tongue had a deep beefy-like flavor, but without being too overpowering. The dish was dressed perfectly by a szechuan peppercorn-infused sauce that cut the richness of the tripe and beef.

Szechuan dumplings in red chili sauce

These Szechuan dumplings were more reminiscent of a ravioli in form than a stereotypical Chinese dumpling. The small pork fillings were wrapped in a thin, rather delicate dough swimming in a black-red chili sauce. All together, it was a nice surprise. Given how good these are, I wouldn’t bother with the regular dumplings here, which were sub par to begin with, let alone compared with the Szechuan dumplings.

Scallion Pancakes

I’m not sure how particular to Szechuan scallion pancakes are, but we couldn’t resist ordering them regardless. Lao Sze Chuan’s pancakes were far better than your typical suburban Chinese restaurant, packing good flavor with a nice crunch without being overly greasy. That said, their pancakes lacked the flakiness of great scallion pancakes and don’t really compare well to my all-time personal favorites at Nice Green Bo in NYC. Given the other great things on Lao Sze Chuan’s menu, I’d look elsewhere on the menu for appetizers.

Breaded sole filets in Thai sauce

2010 02 09_0315 The proprietor of Lao Sze Chuan strongly recommended we try this dish; I’m glad she did as I would have never tried it otherwise based on the menu’s description. Of everything I tried, this was the best single dish of the night. The sole couldn’t possibly have been cooked more perfectly – large filet chunks, impossibly tender and bathed in a mildly spicy-sweet sauce. The hearts of palm, garlic and mushrooms filled out the dish to make it a must-try for anyone going to Lao Sze Chuan. Oh, and don’t be daunted by the “Thai” name – it felt Szechuan through and through to me.

Sauteed shredded beef with Szechuan Jalapeños

2010 02 09_0316

Despite the name, this was one of the mildest dishes of the night (apparently Szechuan “jalapeños” are milder than their Mexican namesakes). The beef was mildly flavored, but velvety in texture. The peppers gave the dish a very pleasant peppery flavor with a subtle bitter note to the dish.

Twice cooked sliced pork with Szechuan jalapeño and leek – $12

2010 02 09_0317

Of the main dishes, this was perhaps my least favorite. But that says much more to the strength of the other dishes than this dish being poorly executed. In fact, this dish would be the star at any other Chinese restaurant in Connecticut. The fatty pork (uncured pork belly?) was sliced paper thin taking on a ribbon-like quality. Cooked with traditional Szechuan spices, leeks and peppers this was still a very good dish. (I sold it to my kids as “Chinese bacon”) My only complaint is that, even though well executed, I was still left with too much of a greasy aftertaste. That said, I’d happily take it any other day of the week when I don’t have access to the rest of the menu.

To wrap up a wildly long post, if you happen to be within a 45 minute radius of Milford, CT, go to Lao Sze Chuan. You’ll count the time and gas investment well worth it.

Lao Sze Chuan
1585 Boston Post Rd.,
Milford, CT 06460
203-783-0556
[MAP]


Solve the world’s food problems: Demand better tasting food.

smarter apple

My two worlds have collided this week: work and food.

At IBM right now, I’m deeply involved in the communications efforts supporting the “Smarter Planet” agenda. Basically, the premise is that the systems that make the world work – financial, food, health, water, traffic, etc. – are largely broken and need to be fixed. IBM’s point of view is that it takes technology, sure, but also policy and cultural change to really find solutions to these problems – to make them smarter.

This week, we’ve been focusing a lot on building smarter food systems. You can read through some of the content here for more background, but the essence is that as our food systems have become globally interconnected, it has heightened the potential risks associated with food safety, nutrition, affordability and availability.

Clearly, this topic of food interests me very personally. So allow me to be indulgent and offer some of my own perspectives on the topic. While many people far smarter and more qualified than I are working on this issue, I have but one point of entry to the topic: taste. Simply, I believe this country’s food problems can be solved with a greater emphasis on better tasting food. Trust me, I’ll explain. But first, some background:

I remember as a kid frequently driving to San Diego from my home in the Inland Empire – about 45 minutes East of Los Angeles. Anyone who has driven that stretch of the I-15 corridor to San Diego knows you pass miles and miles of rocky hills, largely covered by dark avocado trees. The avocado groves thrive in the warm hilly terrain and make the dry, often parched hills, look lush and verdant. Not long after one such trip, I went with my mom to a local produce market and was tasked with buying the avocados. Expecting to find avocados from some of the trees I’d seen on my last trip, I was surprised to find only avocados from Chile or Mexico.

If avocados grew commercially in abundance just miles from my house, why could I only buy ones picked from trees thousands of miles away?

Fast forward 20 years to my now hometown supermarket in Connecticut. It’s August, prime summer produce season in the Northeast, and yet all I find in my supermarket are tomatoes from California. (Ironically, it’s easier to find California grown avocados in Connecticut than in California, as this blogger also noted this week).

Clearly, something is wrong. How much money is being wasted sending food across the country when it’s grown around the corner? What kind of unnecessary energy is burned in the process?

With populations on the earth facing devastating food shortages, something feels wrong about shipping food across the globe to places fully capable of providing for its own.

Somehow we need to create an independent market for local agriculture that is capable of supporting the local population, as much as practical. We need market incentives that force supermarkets to make dramatic changes to how they source, distribute and market food.

How do we do that? the government’s solution, to date has seemed to hinge on farm subsidies. Just read Nicholas Kristof’s column from today’s New York Times to see the absurd results of those programs.

I have a different idea. Remember, I love food for food’s sake. So it always comes back to taste. And, I can’t help but think that peoples’ desire for better tasting food can, ultimately, help lead to the kind of systemic changes needed in our food supplies.

Trivial, you say? Well, let me explain.

Simply stated the closer food is consumed to the place it was grown, the better it tastes. That is an absolute rule.

So, as people yearn for better tasting food, they’ll ultimately yearn for more locally grown food. And as demand for locally grown food increases, demand (read: money) for local agriculture increases. And demand for local agriculture translates into incentives for supermarkets to stock local products. And stocking local products requires more efficient local distribution systems. Problem solved.

It all comes down to consumers’ understanding of what truly good food tastes like. For the most part, we’ve been complacent with two generations worth of mediocre food and have forgotten the link between local food and good food. But if we can begin to remember that linkage, the above scenarios begin to come true.

See how beautifully it all works out in the end? Who can’t get behind the idea of demanding better tasting food?

And that’s what I love doing. Hunting for great food, wherever it exists. And now it’s doubly good to know that my quests are contributing to a smarter food system.

Now, as a pay off for reading this post, a great little video from a colleague explaining why it’s important to know where your food comes from:


Some Thoughts on Jamaican in Fairfield and Westchester Counties

So, over time I’ve tried a lot (certainly not all) of the Jamaican places in lower FF county (Norwalk to Greenwich) and a few in Westchester as well (mostly around the White Plains area).

I’ll list them below, but here’s my question… are there any truly good beef patties out there? I liked the ones at le petit pattisserie (sp?) in WP before it closed, though I still didn’t think they were tremendous. But even at places that have good jamaican otherwise, I have found all their patties to be average. What’s worse is that a lot of the places are selling pre-made patties. Where can you get a great beef patty around here north of the city? (or in manhattan for that matter… but I’ll repost there)

Anyhow, here’s my list of places.

Ruth’s (White Plains)
I was tipped off on this place 3 or 4 years ago on this board. Thanks to whoever that was. They have really great jerk chicken and pork (when they have it). Shockingly, their chicken isn’t dried out… very flavorful, with some kick (could be more). Patties are OK (see above). I need to try more there though. I’m a creature of habit.

Top of the Hill (Stamford)
Best Jerk in Stamford… maybe the best in FF county. Ever since they redid the place a few years ago, their food has improved. It’s probably been 8 months since I last went there, so I’m hoping that it remains unchanged. Their jerk has great flavor and great kick. Long live the scotch bonnet.

Caribbean Market (Stamford)
This used to be the best jerk anywhere around… until about 4 years ago. Not sure what happened, but it never recovered. I still wish I could get the jerk pork like they used to serve… it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in CT in the 8 years I’ve been here. Now their jerk is just OK (only chicken and fish, I believe). However, I do still really like their goat curry. Highlighy recommended. Plus, I’ve liked their patties better than Top of the Hill… and you can get them with coco bread.

Jeff’s Southern Cuisine (Norwalk)
This is a actually a southern BBQ place. But I don’t like their BBQ there much at all. However, he does a really good jerk chicken. It’s cooked in their smoker (I’m presuming since it has a nice smokiness to it) and the jerk rub is very good. It’s a dry rub and it makes the chicken.

So, that’s my list. I’ve tried a few others too (e.g., Scotty’s in Stamford), but these are my places. But what about yours? What am I missing? Where else should I try? And… if course… where can I get a GREAT beef patty?

  • K & S Top of the Hill
    114 W Broad St Stamford CT
  • Brown’s Caribbean Market
    135 W Main St Stamford CT
  • Ruth’s Jamaican Hot & Cold Deli
    255 Battle Ave White Plains NY
  • Jeff’s Cuisine
    54 N Main St Norwalk CT

[Originally posted on Chowhound]


El Charrito: Taco truck in Stamford. We have arrived!

I take back all my badmouthing of Stamford’s Mexican places. I take back my cursing of Mexican food in general in Connecticut. And, temporarily, I take back all the bad things I’ve muttered about living in this cold Mexican wasteland these past 7 years.

At least for now

Because today as I was doing errands, I found El Charrito, a taco truck parked in West Stamford.

I actually first ate at this truck about a year ago. I saw it parked in the Shop Rite parking lot and had a good taco. Then I never saw it again.

Today, I drove by and slammed on my breaks when I saw it parked there. It’s hard to miss – a big yellow truck with a big old sign on the side that says, “El Charrito.”

The husband and wife that own the truck are extremely friendly. The wife, a Stateside born Puerto Rican, who speaks perfect english takes the orders and will help you navigate what’s good that particular day. The husband, from Mexico, does all the cooking. And he’s good.

Today I had a huarache with carnitas. Man, it was awesome. Not just passable, but truly good. Think of a huarache as a thick tortilla, pan fried, about a foot long and 5 inches wide, topped with black refried beans, meat of your choice, shredded lettuce, crema and salsa. Man it was good. the carnitas was good and tender (not as rich as the best carnitas, but better than any other that I’ve had in Stamford). The huarache is all hand made from fresh masa, as are the sopes. For only $4.50, the huarache makes a great lunch. As far as I know, it’s the only place in Stamford that sells huaraches.

Huaraches and sopes were the special today.

Their regular items include tacos, tortas hot dogs, hamburgers, quesadillas, etc. Plus, they have horchata too. Tacos are $2.50… not sure what some of the other items are priced. They also sell something called sincronisadas, which is something like a big old ham, cheese, beans quesadilla.

They said they are there from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. And, you can call ahead and order your food so it’s ready when you get there. 203-940-0922.

They said the truck is parked in the same spot each day – across from Sachs Plumbing, on the side of that triangular jackie robinson park. For the address below, I’m going to approximate…

I hope it’s as good next time I go.

[Originally posted on Chowhound]


Casa Villa in Stamford – An Update

I thought I had posted about this, but apparently hadn’t. not enough sleep in this household, clearly.

anyhow, I finally made it back to casa villa for the first time since they reopened following a car going through their front window.

See, I’ve been going to casa villa for at least 7 years, when it was called Favi’s. I actually think it was better then, but all along the problem with this place is that it’s so darned inconsistent. I’ve actually had a few great tacos, mostly mediocre, and some decidedly poor ones there. But, even given that, if someone pins me down and asks where to go for tacos in Stamford, I’m afraid I still have to answer Casa Villa (oh how I miss rolando’s). (oh, and while ole mole has some good things – albeit tailored to an american palate – their tacos totally suck).

So, I was hopeful that following the reopening, Casa Villa would have upped their game in the kitchen. So, with the middle daughter (4 yrs old) in tow, we went there a few weeks ago. I ordered two tacos – al pastor and carnitas – and my daughter ordered a chicken taco.

The al pastor taco wasn’t bad. It was a little overly salty, which always ticks me off. Mexican places do this to al pastor to compensate for the fact that they are using a weak adobo for the pork. It was pretty good, but being a little overly salty really annoys me.

I honestly can’t remember my carnitas taco. That means that it was OK, but not great. Around here, an OK carnitas isn’t a bad thing, frankly.

But I have to say I was pretty surprised with the chicken taco. It wasn’t dry at all and had really good flavor. Shocking. I NEVER order chicken tacos because those two things never seem to come about. But I found myself pawning my al pastor taco on my 4 year old while I ate her chicken taco (dad’s prerogative). Though, she got the better of me when she spilled her water on my taco. so there you go.

Anyhow, Casa Villa remains as it always has been. A decent local place for an authentic taco. Just don’t expect the same taco from visit to visit. But if my last visit was a guide, go for chicken.

Some day before I leave this part of the country to head back home to my motherland (so. cal) I will see a great taqueria pop up in Stamford… even if I have to open it myself. Until then, I’ll go to casa villa… or, actually, drive down to Port Chester.


I Finally tried Colony Pizza in Stamford

It’s been a good seven years from the first time I heard about Colony until today, when I finally tried it. And as such, I’ve always felt a little like I wasn’t a full fledged member of the SW connecticut family. The hot oil pie from Colony seems to be a rite of passage for anyone living in Fairfield county. So I was finally initiated today. I’m a citizen.

I’m almost scared to say this… but I didn’t really like it. I mean, it was OK. But there just wasn’t anything that special about what I had. I tried the hot oil pie and a regular pie (for the kiddies). They were good, but there just wasn’t a lot for me to get excited about. I liked the slight kick the pepper gives the pie. The crust was nice and crisp.

This isn’t a problem with comparisons to other pizzas. I fully get that this is a different experience. A different kind of pizza. But there just wasn’t a lot for me to enjoy. The sauce was average, the cheese average, the crisp crust nice, the pepper good…

I guess it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it (how’s that for some double negatives) it’s just that I didn’t find it to be the superlative experience I was expecting.

I’ll probably still go back. I just won’t be pining for it any time soon.

So, there you have it. Please don’t revoke my citizenship. I’m a good person. promise. really.


Corelli’s Pastry in Stamford: Italian turned Colombian turned Haitian

Has anyone been to this place on Stillwater in Stamford recently? I spoke to a good Haitian friend who said that the place is now a split Colombian/Haitian restaurant.

Apparently, the Colombian owners (who, presumably, had bought it from the Italian owners a few years ago) sold half the joint and now they have two menus – one Colombian, one Haitian. I asked if they had the same folks cooking both foods and apparently they have two kitchen staffs too (a good thing). So you can go in and order either Colombian or Haitian. I remember the bakery part of the Colombian was quite good. I’m glad it’s still around.

Anyone been recently? I need to check it out. Apparently the griot and goat curries are very good. I’m excited for some good Haitian food. Lacaye really wasn’t all that good for the past few years.

Now that it’s gone from Italian to Colombian to Colombian and Haitian, I wonder when they’ll actually change the name??? Although, I guess that adds to the charm…

Corelli’s Pastry Shop
166 Stillwater Ave,
Stamford, CT
(203) 348-0686

[Originally posted on Chowhound]