Turns out that I taught English ten minutes away from the town where Sandy, the Cantonese manager of Szechuan Gourmet grew up. I would say that it truly is a small world. The reality of it is that the area around where I taught English is just about the richest area in China, so the social and geographic mobility of the Cantonese people tends to be higher than average in comparison to the rest of the PRC.
Sichuan is a different place entirely – it’s a central Chinese state with an abundance of natural resources, but since it’s landlocked, it lags behind the export-heavy delta provinces economically. Wikipedia says its residents’ net income stands at $600 a year; kinda tough to buy a flight to LA on that budget. It has exported (segue) one of the most recognizable dishes on any Chinese menu you see in America; Kung Pao Chicken.
I was going to meet Cindy ay 12:30 for what was supposed to be a quick lunch. Before she got there, the hospitality guard dropped a Spicy Cucumber Salad (above) and some Pork Dumplings on me. I knew I was committing a major food blogger sin here (eating before pictures were taken), but I couldn’t help myself; I went at those spicy cucumbers like a mongoose in a henhouse. I don’t think I’d had any kind of vegetable since Thursday. The crispness reminded me of the straight kelly green ones you get at Katz’s. Where do you buy cucumbers so crispy? I’ve never been able to purchase them like this in the store. Must eat appetizer at Szechuan Gourmet – The Spicy Cucumber Salad.
When Cindy arrived and perused the menu, she got Kung Pao Scallops (above) on the brain. When she said that’s what she was going for, I was immediately curious. They were lightly breaded and fried like a fish fry with rice flour. You can see by the picture that there was just the right amount of glaze on the scallops. I can’t stand it when you order General Tso’s and you are left with a pool of sugar and chile oil on your plate – there was none of that here. Cindy wasn’t a huge fan, not expecting the breaded & fried-ness of the scallops. I didn’t know what to expect, so I was surprised; it was a novel idea that they actually pulled off. Thinking back now, I wish I’d taken a bite with the pepper, peanut, and scallop all together – really the only way to gauge the beauty of a true Kung Pao.
I wanted to try the Mapo Tofu after reading some Yelp reviews, but I’ve only had two or three tofu dishes in my life that I really liked, so this one had a big mountain to climb. I could have stood for more heat and my personal preference is a tofu that is a little more firm. My recommendation to you is to completely ignore my review of the mapo tofu – I am an unfit reviewer. Might as well make someone who doesn’t like chili the judge at a chili cook-off.
What ended up winning us over were two items that the chef thought were more indicative of the restaurant’s quality; the Braised Bass with Szechuan Chili (he boned the fish before I could get a good picture) and the Pork Belly with Spicy Chili Leeks (left).
The pork belly with spicy chili leeks holds a special place in my heart. In China, you always eat out. Always. It’s too cheap not to. When I was there, I had about seven different places I used to make the rounds at, abd each of them had their signature dish. One of the places closest to my residence had this dish, but they made it with green onions as well. Local place, always packed, ertainly one of my top three places to eat in the country (map, you know, just in case you’re ever in Nanhai). This one met my expectations. It came out with my mapo tofu, and we’d thought that the Kung Pao scallops weren’t coming and they’d just screwed up the order. I secretly hoped it was staying, even though Cindy seeled a little dismayed.
It stayed and was our hands down favorite.
The bass was sweet, spicy and uber-garlicky. Probably had about two elephants worth of garlic on this bad boy. It was about a two pound fish, and we had four or five bites of it – we both agreed that we felt really bad not eating all this beautiful stuff when they brought it out, but I’ve got 82 places to go after this. They know we’re not going to eat everything and they definitely know the drill.
Would I have ordered: the spicy cucumber salad, the braised bass, and the pork belly? No. Were they my favorite things of the meal? Yes.
Sometimes you just have to let the chef decide. What’s the word for Omakase in Chinese? Find out, come here, and let them do their worst.
The IRL Arts Foundation and The Wandering Foodie thank Szechuan Gourmet for providing this meal.
242 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019