Was Chicago’s so-called Mayor of Chinatown, Tony Hu, a bit too ambitious when he set his sights on Las Vegas? Or is it unfair to expect a restaurant to be implementing its full menu two weeks after its official opening?
In the weeks leading up to Lao Sze Chuan’s September 12 debut, Hu and the Palms’ media machines were making bold promises. His would be “the first Chinese restaurant in a casino offering authentic Sze Chuan cuisine,” with food that surpasses what you’ll find in Las Vegas’ prolific Chinatown. Moreover, his reps promised a menu with more than 250 items, far larger than one might expect in a casino. There’d be 60 made-to-order dim sum items, and an assortment of hot pots would be featured for the late-night crowd.
Yet on my recent visits, the offerings didn’t even come close to what I was expecting. The main menu had 112 items (not 250). There were fewer than 30 dim sum offerings (not 60), only available before 4 p.m. (They’ve since cut them off at 3:30.) And those late-night hot pots? Not happening.
When asked about the scaled-down menu, a representative told me that given the complexity of each dish, and to ensure quality, they will gradually add new items to both the regular and dim sum menus. Furthermore, she expects the hot pots to appear in the coming weeks. A gradual menu rollout isn’t unprecedented in the restaurant world. But as the guy who relayed the original promises in an article previewing Lao Sze Chuan, I feel a duty to tell you they aren’t all here … yet.
Now for the good news: Lao Sze Chuan still has a pretty large menu of very good food. Moreover, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable. The food I’ve sampled has generally reminded me of a slightly more upscale version of what you’ll find in a good Chinatown restaurant in any major city. This is not overly fancy cuisine, despite the gorgeous dining room that once housed Little Buddha.
Tony’s Chicken, for example, reminded me of a mildly spicy General Tso’s chicken with a lighter sauce and a slight fruity sweetness. (The restaurant also offers General Tso’s chicken, so perhaps they brought me the wrong dish—a distinct possibility, since my waiter volunteered that the servers had just mixed up another table’s order.) The Mandarin pork dumplings are almost identical to the steamed pot stickers available in most Chinese restaurants, except for the refreshingly bitter bite of minced raw garlic. The fried rice is most notable for its gentle sweetness instead of the heavy soy taste most people are used to. And while there’s really nothing original about the smoked tea duck, the subtlety of its smoky flavor is absolutely perfect.
One dish that’s in no way subtle is the one Hu created specifically for Las Vegas: Sze Chuan peppercorn fish. Heavily breaded and fried, and served without sauce, it’s the large dose of peppercorns that gives it a serious kick. Bite into a nugget that’s barely sprinkled with them, and you’ll feel a playful tingling on your tongue. Bite into one with a heavy dose, and your mouth will practically go numb!
My favorite dish, however, are the stir-fried flat rice noodles, a.k.a. chow fun. A Chinese staple, the version here has so many levels of flavor you’ll spend the entire meal trying to name all the spices on your palate. On the flip side, skip the scallion pancakes—thick, soggy and tasteless, presented without any dipping sauce.
Like the menu, service here is still a work in progress. But each staff member I’ve encountered has been enthusiastic about the restaurant and its direction. Because of that, I’m excited to return in a few months—if for no other reason than to try the other half of the menu.
Al’s Menu Picks
- Mandarin-style dumplings ($6)
- Sze Chuan smoked tea duck ($16)
- Sze Chuan peppercorn fish ($16)
- Stir-fried flat rice noodle ($12)
Lao Sze Chuan
The Palms, 702-990-8888. Open for lunch and dinner, 10 a.m.–midnight Sun.–Thu., 10 a.m.–2 a.m. Fri.–Sat. Dinner for two, $30–$65.