Szechwan Chinese Cuisine
Cool, calm and kung pao
By Jennifer Wohletz
Writing restaurant reviews doesn’t normally put my life in danger, but I’ve come to discover that parking lots are making my short list of places to avoid. I took a leisurely drive up to the Heights to have lunch at Szechwan Chinese Cuisine, where I enjoyed the picturesque scenery along Central--seedy and/or abandoned motels, pawn shops and the occasional Suntran stop filled with people looking like I did the morning after an Orgy concert back in 1998. But pulling into the parking lot of the strip mall at 1605 Juan Tabo NE proved to be my peril, as I was nearly obliterated by a jackass in an Isuzu Rodeo.
I expected an embarrassed apology, but then soon remembered where I was when Dummy McAsserson indicated to me that I was No. 1, and screamed something about canines making love.
I needed to take a load off. After entering the restaurant, I was glad I had chosen this particular location to unwind after my assassination attempt. The atmosphere was calm, serene and, best of all, cool and quiet. There is no open kitchen, no 100 mph dim sum cart and no weird cooking smells that sometimes can assault your nostrils when you walk in the door.
The service was extremely efficient without being buggy, and I had a cold drink and a steamy bowl of hot and sour soup ($2.50) within 15 minutes of plopping my butt on one of the ornate (yet strangely plastic-cushion-covered) wooden chairs. The initial soup order can make or break my entire Chinese dining experience, because I truly believe that if you can’t get the fundamentals right, it doesn’t bode well for the complicated stuff. The soup was very, very good, and unlike others I’ve eaten, was actually hot and sour at the same time. (Often you get one or the other.) It was also crammed with mushrooms and thick shreds of spicy pork.
I ordered the beef potstickers (eight for $4.75) next, and they came with a warm, salty brown sauce that was heavy on the soy. The dumplings were a touch underdone for my taste, but I tend to favor a chewy top and a crispy bottom. I made a note to self to ask for extra well-done next time.
The menu took me more than a few minutes to get through, and not just because it was large. I seemed to be looking for exotic house specials that weren’t there. The entrées were segmented into predictable categories like seafood, beef, chow mein, mu shu, etc. I noticed the chef’s specials were standard fare like Peking chicken, roast duck and shrimp in black bean sauce, and that all the entrées were priced between $8 and $13. As nothing stood out, I decided to try the “Red-Cooked Tofu” ($7.50), which was touted on the menu as being “slowly simmered tofu with mushrooms.”
I expected the dish to be in a reddish sauce, and perhaps an interesting recipe to spice up some boring bean curd. (“Red cooking” is a traditional chinese method where food is braised in soy sauce, which gives the food a reddish-brown hue.) I was disappointed when the entrée arrived, because what I got was a pretty typical plate of big, fried tofu hunks with a few snow peas and sliced carrots in a brown sauce, which was eerily similar in taste and consistency to the sauce they sell at grocery stores in the glass bottle, inauspiciously labeled as stir-fry sauce.
After scooping the tofu onto my plate I found the mushrooms underneath, but I had a hard time believing my lunch was slow-simmered, as the tofu was unyielding under my fork without a decent amount of pressure.
But it was nice and quiet in there. I wondered if this was more popular at night, as I took note of family-style specials on the menu like the “family dinner” ($9.95 per person) which includes salad, soup, appetizers and a choice of 12 entrées, or the “house dinner” ($11.75 per person) with all of the above plus more appetizers and 20 more entrées to choose from. The “chef’s special dinner” ($17.50 per person) gives you an upgrade to seafood soup and some different appetizers.
To recap: Calm and quiet, plastic seatcovers, menu with lots of choices but nothing that really stands out. My total bill was $20 for soup, appetizer, entrée, tip and tax.
I was glad to have a chance to relax after almost being julienned by an SUV. I needed the Zen lunchtime to recover not only from the prospective vehicular assault, but also the effort of having to think of, then yell out, all those insults at him for being a moron. Did you really think I’d let him go without a word? After all, I’m a New Mexican, too.
The Alibi Recommends:
Chicken stick appetizer
Hot and sour soup
Mixed seafood and duck
Szechwan Chinese Cuisine, 1605 Juan Tabo NE (Suites M and N), 299-9133. Hours: Tues.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Fridays 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Saturdays noon–10 p.m., Sundays 4 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays. Price range: Inexpensive to moderate. No smoking, credit cards accepted, takeout orders.
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