Little Szechuan: Big RevelationsPosted: August 16, 2012
NOTE: The writer,a guest blogger for St. Paul SPOT is Harry Kent , currently a senior at Macalester College, and a student employee at Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center. Prior to that time, he was a community outreach coordinator and eventually, serving a brief stint as Office Manager of the University Avenue Business Association.
This week’s Macalester Lunch on the Avenue installment offered more than just an opportunity to sample some of the finest Chinese cuisine in the Twin Cities. Much like owner Patrick Chen’s intricate presentation, this lunch was about the passion expressed in the voices of the Avenue our group heard.
Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center invited top staff members from the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), director of community engagement Nancy Pomplun and executive-director Va-Megn Thoj, to offer some insight on the problems from LRT construction affecting the businesses along the avenue. While their descriptions centered on the experiences of Asian businesses, the difficulties could certainly be attributed to the rest of the University Avenue businesses that have endured the brunt of the construction in front of their buildings.
Va-Megn and Nancy discussed many issues, whether the vibrations affecting electrical equipment, including medical screening machines costing thousands of dollars in lost appointments to confusion with business signage for those who do not read English well.
However, while AEDA is a small organization, they have worked hard to meet the needs of these businesses during tough times using all the ingenuity and resources they can muster. Part of this includes their holistic approach to account for the difficulties businesses have faced. AEDA has collected not just quantitative data in terms of the financial setbacks the construction has caused businesses, but qualitative as well.
Interns have visited businesses and recorded owners’ testimonies of the personal toll from the stress related to LRT construction. One business owner has been afflicted with heart complications caused by the strain of trying to keep their business going. Other businesses have had to sell off personal goods to ensure their business survives construction in hopes of thriving once the Green Line begins running.
AEDA is collecting all of this information to petition the Federal Transit Authority to include these personal stories as evidence to include spiritual aspects of human impact in their environmental impact assessments. Our group was captivated by the level of detail and effort AEDA is willing to make to capture the full picture of this transitional phase, and how the impact on businesses is much deeper than just lost customers and dollars. I never would’ve claimed that lives are on the line during the construction of the light rail, but, livelihoods certainly are.
That is why the words of manager Patrick Chen’s interpretation of Szechuan cuisine rang with even more clarity and understanding. Chen described his philosophy on the specific use of spice and spiciness for his dishes to our group. For example, the chilies he includes in the Chung King Chili Shrimp don’t overwhelm the palette as much as delicately cover the tongue with a comfortable heat, the flavor standing over the intensity. Chen elaborated on the difference between eastern and western views of spiciness, with the west more likely to overpower, and, Szechuan flavors specifically tasting with more subtlety.
Chen’s vision echoed the ideal image of the east end of University Avenue, recently branded Little Mekong by AEDA. The area pays tribute to the merchants who would come to the river to create a vibrant community through the selling of their goods. The work and passion of Patrick Chen honors that same spirit and it shows in the food he expertly crafts, and, the people who work hard to protect the dreams of these craftsmen.
For more information on AEDA and the Little Mekong initiative, visit littlemekong.com or aeda-mn.org