Famous Szechuan Pavilion
This restaurant has closed. Famous Szechuan Pavilion in UCity is not very famous. Perhaps it is because eating there is a lot like eating in an abandoned office. Fluorescent lights blast down from the ceiling--when they're turned on, that is. Random paintings are both hung and propped against walls. There's a TV blasting Chinese news and soaps. An algae filled fish tank sits idly in the corner. This is not your typical American Chinese restaurant. Even the plating comes in a mismatched array of bowls. This is what your average restaurant in Chengdu is like. Famous Szechuan Pavilion is interested in one thing: making seriously authentic Szechuan-style Chinese food.
Turn a blind eye to the atmosphere and trust that you're going to be eating Chinese food unlike what you normally find in St. Louis. There is no General Tsao's here. There is mapo tofu, spicy wonton soup, dan dan mian, braised intestines and Szechuan hotpot.
The small kitchen is helmed by an older woman who cooked every dish the night of our visit and I believe is the owner. A younger man (her son?) works as waiter, cashier, server and dishwasher. The service was not overly friendly, but he helped answer the few questions we had. We started with Dan Dan Mian, a special occasion dish for me in Singapore. The version I am familiar with is a dense, spicy soup with a heavy sesame taste and a mouthfeel you only get from a rich pork stock. The broth houses a chewy thin noodle and crispy ground pork. Awful for your health but great for a morale booster or a post-drinking meal.
The Szechuan style version of Dan Dan has a similar taste profile, but the dish is dry in the sense that it does not have a soup base. We got the Chicken Dan Dan Mian to start and I was blown away by the flavor it packed. My initial sadness about the lack of soup was quickly erased as we dug into the dish. It brought me right back to Asia, which is a sign of a powerful and authentic dish. The soft noodles and chicken were coated in sesame and chili oil. I was a bit afraid of how hot it would be, as Szechuan food is famous for its fiery food, but the heat was about medium. It was exactly where I wanted it to get the full flavor of the dish without burning my tongue off.
We moved on to the Szechuan Hot Pot. You order a broth, either spicy or not, which comes out on a burner keeping it boiling hot. You then pick out a handful of the 40-plus ingredients you'd like to put in your hot pot, which are brought to your table raw, ready for you to toss into the boiling broth. For 2-3 people, the hot pot costs $15, 4-6 is $25 and for more than 7 it is $35. Ingredient prices range from $3.99 to $5.99 each. All of the meats come frozen and there's a surprisingly low amount of greens available, but there should be plenty of choices to satisfy a group.
There are more common options, such as shrimp, tofu, rice noodles and sliced beef, plus some more unusual ones like tripe, gizzards, frog legs and black fungus, a personal favorite of mine. Our choices were Sliced Lamb ($5.99), Chinese Cabbage ($3.99), Beancurd Sheets ($3.99) and Rice Noodles ($3.99). As soon as the broth hits the table, the smells of Chengdu fill the air. I've had terrible "Szechuan" broths before that were basically chicken broth with a lot of chili oil poured in, but this was not the case. The broth was filled with chilies, tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, onions, garlic and who knows what else. Once again, we did not go full spice for the sake of being able to taste, but it still had a strong kick.
All four of our choices were fantastic in the soup. The cabbage wilted and became as soft as the tofu. The noodles sucked up the broth like a sponge. The beancurd sheets, wide and thin strips of tofu, ended up with a drool-worth taste and softness. It actually became a bit of a battle to see who could get more of the sheets. The lamb, boiled in the seasoning, then dipped into the ginger-sesame oil brought to the table, was addictive.
By chance, I made a camera-less return trip to the restaurant the same week. I got the Spicy Wonton Soup and the Spicy Pickled Cabbage. The soup was delicious: a fiery red broth with scallions and soft dumplings. The pickled cabbage was actually the spiciest thing I've had at the restaurant so far.
Yes, the atmosphere and service of Famous Szechuan Pavilion is comically bad, but think of it as part of the experience. It feels like the kind of place Anthony Bourdain would go to. It's tough for a restaurant hanging so tightly to its roots to survive in a city so far from Chengdu, but they are doing it. Do yourself a favor and go try it. You are not going to get food poisoning, you are not going to have bad food. Think of it as being invited to a foreign friend's home and being treated to a truly authentic Szechaun eating experience.
8615 Olive Blvd.
University City, MO 63105