Like many New Yorkers, I find myself on a trip to New England at least once a year. In the winters, I go for the skiing, the hot chocolate, and the classic apres-ski fare of wings and beer. In the fall, I go to see the leaves turn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, and to enjoy some good apple cider and pancakes with maple syrup.
One thing I long found vexing is where to eat on the road, where the obvious culinary offerings range from McDonald’s to Friendly’s. Well, I found the answer.
Lao Sze Chuan is part of the family of restaurants headlined by Chef Tony Hu, a Sichuan native with several award-winning restaurants in the Chicago area, one of which we visited a few years ago during our trip to the Windy City. For reasons I won’t question, his flagship restaurant also has an outpost on a long strip mall in Milford, Connecticut, right about where the Merritt Parkway hits I-95.
We time our driving trips to arrive in time for lunch.
Driving by it, it would be easy to mistake this Sichuan powerhouse for the average nondescript Americanized Chinese restaurant. But the restaurant’s flavor-packed dishes are anything but average, and its bold use of garlic, ginger, chilies, and Sichuan pepper leaves no doubts as to its authenticity.
The twice-cooked sole with wild Sichuan pepper is so good that I’ve seriously considered driving up just for another plate of it. The fish is tender and juicy, with a light crispy coating that is not at all greasy. It is tossed in peppery chili oil, salty fermented black beans, and tongue-tingling Sichuan pepper. The result is a dish that is absolutely bursting with flavor and not as spicy as it looks. I daydream about it.
Other Sichuan staples are just as successful. I can’t resist the classic dan dan noodles, with bright red chili sauce that (in the words of Pete Wells) leaves your lips vibrating like a tuning fork. The ma po tofu has all kinds of heat and big flavors, with abundant garlic and ginger, pungent fermented black beans, chilies in various forms, and a puckering hit of black vinegar. I find the restaurant’s egg drop soup with corn helps cool the tongue.
The big menu has something for everyone, so even those fearful of the heat normally delivered by Sichuan cuisine can find something fantastic. Try the tea-smoked duck, which is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, or any of a wide range of meat, poultry, seafood, and noodle dishes (or ask for the dan dan noodles “mild”!). But do take a chance on the twice-cooked sole.
Lao Sze Chuan
1585 Boston Post Road
Milford, CT 06460