Lan Sheng’s Awesomeness Will Hopefully Force Szechuan Gourmet to Stay Good
When Lan Sheng first put up their sign up back in September (on 39th btw. 5+6th), I was pretty skeptical. Were these people crazy? Opening a Sichuan restaurant across the street from New York Times 2 starred Szechuan Gourmet seemed like suicide. How could they possibly match up? The regular menu had some tasty looking stuff on it, but their lunch specials seemed a bit Americanized in contrast to S.G.- which offers a good number of their best Sichuan specialties as lunch specials (twice cooked pork belly with chili and leeks I’m looking in your general direction…)
I suppose with S.G. packed every day for lunch they could hope for some spillover, but after trying out the place just before the New Year I think it’s safe to say they’re not hoping for spillover. They have the potential to be doing some major customer poaching from their rivals across the street.
There were a couple of early filings on Lan Sheng, including a press preview dinner by Joe DiStefano and a great article by Sarah DiGregorio in the Village Voice- which discovered the kitchen was full of former Wu Liang Ye employees. But I was more interested in the lunch specials. Tea smoked duck or whole fish is fantastic if you’re having a dinner with a bunch of people… but lunch is a different ballgame. At $6.95 the lunch specials pass the price test, but what about taste? I assembled a crack team of eaters to find out.
The lunch menu at Lan Sheng has all the typical things that you’d expect to find (chx w/ broccoli, kung pao, General Tso’s, sesame chicken), and some strange items that would normally scare me off entirely (Pad Thai!?) But we were looking to find the gems. The specialties disguised as average Chinese food lunch specials.
Ma Po Tofu (#36) seemed like a good place to start. We asked for it spicy, and it packed a good punch… but was a far cry from the lake of fire you get over at Szechuan Gourmet. The benefit was you could taste the flavors, which were excellent. It had a underlying sweetness that kept me going back for more and more. Definitely a good start.
We were all pretty excited to discover that “double-sauteed pork” (#18) was an almost exact replica of the twice cooked pork belly with chili and leeks, my favorite lunch special at Szechuan Gourmet. There was only difference… this version tasted like they cared just a little bit more. The past few times I’ve gotten the pork belly at S.G. it was great, but lacked that little bit of umph I felt the first time I had it (the day got 2 stars from the New York Times.) Lan Sheng brings back the umph. It was awesome, and more importantly cheaper than the S.G. lunch special.
The Home Style Stir Fried Shredded Pork (#17) was also delicious, but probably our least favorite dish of the bunch. Definitely a huge notch above your average Chinese food lunch special, but it kind of got overshadowed by the rest of the dishes.
The biggest surprise on the lunch specials menu, though, was the “Lan Sheng Special Chicken” (#11). On the regular menu it appears on the “Signature” dishes section, and we were just too curious to let it go. And boy were we glad we didn’t. I can’t tell you exactly what was so good about the chopped up bits of salty crunchy chicken that is Lan Sheng’s “special chicken”, but I couldn’t stop eating it. Delicious chunks of dark meat, with the crispiest, tastiest skin imaginable. I suppose as a lunch, maybe it’s one note? But if you end up sharing food with a few people, this has to be one of the choices.
All the lunch specials come with soup and rice. The fried rice is a waste of time (order the white), and just detracts from the excellent flavors of the main dishes. As for the soups, the hot and sour was way better than average, and the wonton soup didn’t taste like dishwater (which is a victory in Midtown, as far as I’m concerned.)
There are some dishes on the regular menu that are under $10, so we thought a vegetable might be a good idea. (Of course when I say vegetable, I mean “vegetable with pork”.) The sauteed string beans with minced pork ($6.95) were excellent, and a nice addition to the meal.
Finally, it’s tough to try a new Sichuan restaurant without sampling the wontons in chili oil and dan dan noodles. Both are $5.50, and if you go with a group it should be easy to share and still keep your per person cost to under $10 (since the lunch specials are only $7).
Both were really good, and dare I say it… better than Szechuan Gourmet.
I’m no expert in Sichuan cuisine, but I think it’s safe to say that at Lan Sheng you are not getting the 100% blow your top off authentic Sichaun peppercorn spiciness that you might find in the outer boroughs. And it’s way to early to say that’s it’s entirely better than Szechuan Gourmet (especially just from trying a few lunch specials.) But I will say this, all the food we ate was excellent. And there is no longer an obvious choice for Chinese food lovers who work near 39th btw. 5+6th. It was good enough to make me want to go back and try more things, a development that will hopefully we be just what Szehcuan Gourmet needs to keep them from resting on their laurels.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place will say)
- The lunch specials are only $7! (Cheaper than Szechuan Gourmet)
- On this visit, the double cooked pork belly was better than the version I got on my last visit to S.G.
- Hello Lan Sheng special chicken!
- The dan dan noodles, and wontons in chili oil are excellent
- These guys used to cook at Wu Liang Ye. It’s no surprise the place is good.
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place will say)
- There is far better Sichuan food in the outer boroughs!
- Szechuan Gourmet has a much more interesting lunch specials menu, with far more Sichuan options
- Uh… there’s Pad Thai on the menu. WTF?
Lan Sheng, 60 W. 39th St. (btw. 5+6th) 212-575-8899