Szechuan Chef, Bellevue, Washington

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

I don’t claim to be an expert on just about any cuisine. And having never been to mainland China, Chinese cuisines certainly falls into my non-expert category. It’s not that I haven’t eaten hundreds of Chinese meals in North America… I have. Many of them, superlative. But I recognize that the delta between what I’m eating here, and the distinct regional cuisines in China is non-trivial. I’m not pining for the real thing when I eat here… I just recognize that in many cases it may be something different.

That said, I have some limited experience with the distinction between Szechuan vs. Cantonese vs. Hong Kong style dishes. I got some of this insight from my trip to Hong Kong. Not mainland China, but China nonetheless. In fact, the very best Szechuan meal I’ve ever had was in Hong Kong at Shui Hu Ju.

Now roll back to Seattle, ensconced between two (American) Chinese food meccas — San Francisco and Vancouver (or more accurately: Richmond, B.C.). And as much as I love Seattle, I have often lamented the lack of super high quality Chinese food in this area. But it turns out that Seattle is not devoid of some excellent Chinese dishes (as opposed to reliably standout menus), you just have to work a little harder to find them.

Imagine my surprise when a truly incredible Szechuan dish is found amidst the sea of food mediocrity that folks here like to call “the Eastside”. The Eastside is like a barren wasteland for decent food. Amidst the rocky gray waters that are chain steakhouses, and restaurants serving oversized portions of novelty cheesecake (Ed note: he periodically enjoys an oversized slice of novelty cheesecake whether he admits it or not), there are a few oases. But they are so few and far between, that for the Seattle resident, when the question of travelling all the way across one of the bridges for a decent meal comes up, the answer is invariably “why bother?”.

Well Szechuan Chef in Bellevue is a reason to bother. It’s not that the entire menu at Szechuan Chef in Bellevue isn’t good. I haven’t tried the whole thing certainly, but the dishes I’ve had have generally been tasty, fresh, flavorful affairs. Crisp, hot, oily potstickers with a savory steamy pork filling. Thick and rich hot and sour soup with a velvety texture get things started admirably. And there are many many dishes to choose from including massive hot pots brimming with goodness. And despite my efforts to diversify my ordering every time I go to a restaurant so that I can get a sense of its depth and breadth, when I return to Szechuan Chef, there’s one dish that I order every single time. Honestly, I really have no choice. I apologize as it does a disservice to my ability to describe the rest of the menu, especially on this last visit where we had limited time and appetite and went with the intention of ordering this one dish so a friend could try it.

But in fairness, given how this one dish embeds itself in my brain, I think it alone is reason enough to travel over the bridge and brave this sad little strip mall (though no sadder than the countless other sad little strip malls that dot the eastside). On the menu the dish is called Chong Qing Hot Chicken. It’s got a “5″ next to the little jalapeƱo graphic sitting to the left of the menu item. I think the 5 translates to “pretty damn spicy”. (Though in truth, I didn’t find it too tough to eat at all in terms of how hot it was.) The dish is basically deep fried chicken, green onions, hot peppers, and green beans. (I owe the waitress who originally recommended I order it a beer, or some sort of gift because I probably never would have picked this non-descript item off the rather vast menu without guidance.) But aside from the crispness of the vegetables, the perfect chicken chunks with their moist insides ensconced in a sharp crispy coating, the thing that makes this dish is the use of Sichuan Pepper. Sichuan Pepper, which was actually the subject of an import ban to the United States until 2005 (for fear that it could carry citrus canker) contains 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool which causes a numbing sensation in the mouth.

The best way I can describe it is that your mouth will feel like a spicy rainbow. Honestly you just have to try it for yourself. The numbing sensation isn’t a novelty either, it creates a wholly unique way to experience the clean and deep flavors of the dish. Rather than tasting less, the “numbness” lets you experience every little edge of the flavor of this dish in a mouth that’s been stripped down to just the basics of sensation.

I’m sure that Szechuan Chef has other dishes on the menu that don’t just delight, but stand out. And if I can find enough people to go with me, I will eventually find some of them. But for me, if this is the only superstar dish that I ever find, it will still be enough of a reason to make the trek over to Bellevue.

Szechuan Chef, 15015 Main Street, Bellevue, WA 98007-5229
(425) 746-9008. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

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14 Responses to “Szechuan Chef, Bellevue, Washington”

  1. Warren says:

    Hillel, nice review – you’re giving away my secret place. As mentioned, it’s got great variety and although, I try to eat around the menu, I’ve never had the Chong Qing Hot Chicken. Can’t wait to go back and try it now.

  2. hillel says:

    Thanks for the nice comment. That’s always the downside of telling people about places I love. They get more crowded. ;)

  3. I wouldn’t say the Eastside is a “barren wasteland” of good food… Some of the good restaurants are just sort of redundant when you’re closer to Seattle. (McCormick and Schmick’s, Daniel’s Broiler, etc.) There are a couple of culinary treats which I love and which are ONLY available on the Eastside, though.

    First off is Mayuri, a really amazing little Indian restaurant with a wonderfully varied menu. I always wind up getting some form of their Thali dinners, not infrequently the Baighan Bartha. It’s a dish I’ve gotten various places, including an upscale New York Indian restaurant, but nowhere I’ve gone has balanced the smokey and sweet flavors like Mayuri.

    The second place I have to recommend, especially to food-loving families or large groups (and even moreso if they all have different tastes and diets), is Crossroads Mall. This is somewhere my family went on a pretty regular basis when I was growing up. The food court is filled with little independent, ethnically varied restaurants, not one of which is a McDonald’s. They have Mexican, Vietnamese, pizza, Japanese (yakisoba), Japanese (sushi), Indian, Mediterranean, Thai, piroshki, plus a sprinkling of indie soup-and-salad or pasta type places — almost twenty distinct little restaurants. This is seriously great food at really reasonable prices, and the variety is a beautiful thing. They have live music (including a hit-or-miss open mic night), and if you need to take a little digesting time before bundling back into your car, you can go play chess at the giant-sized chess board, or poke around Half Price Books.

    In closing, I’ve got to mention two amazing Eastside restaurants that have (so sadly!) passed on: Jake O’Shaugnessey, and, much more recently, Yarrow Bay Grill.

  4. The waitress recommended you order the chicken a beer? That *is* very considerate of her :) .

  5. ScottT says:

    Good review. I’ve been a fan of the Chef since it opened. Next time you’re there, don’t miss the dry style wontons, szechuan style. It’s fantastic- and I’ve been looking for a good version for 20 years. On the east coast, it was called szechuan dumplings in red hot oil. Next time I visit, I’ll try the Chong Qing Hot Chicken.

  6. dave says:

    Thanks for including the address of the restaurant!

  7. Anonymous says:

    When I read phrases like “spicy rainbow,” I know this is a review from the perspective of Americanized Chinese food, not true Chinese food. That doesn’t mean this place is bad, but you’ve given me no reason to believe that they’re good. I’ve seen dishes like this in countless American Chinese restaurants — a dozen fried-chicken dishes all the same but with a different sauce tossed on top.

    Fortunately, there is a place with amazing, authentic Chinese food on the Eastside. Try Shanghai Cafe sometime.

  8. blb says:

    Despite any impression given by the description in the review, this is actually a pretty traditional Szechuanese dish and though the version at Szechuan Chef does not contain as many dried peppers as one might find in Szechuan province, it’s pretty authentic! Google ‘chongqing spicy chicken’ to see what I mean.
    I have made it my mission to try chongqing spicy chicken in as many local restaurants as possible, and I think Szechuan Chef’s is the best, for precisely the reason mentioned above; the great use of Szechuan peppercorns.
    The other really excellent version that is now sadly no longer available due to restaurant closure was at Szechuan Bean Flower up on Highway 99. I understand the chef may be at a new restaurant up north somewhere, so I may have to go look for it soon. Old Szechuan in the ID also has a good version, as does Szechuan Bistro in Greenwood. Szechuan Bistro’s version is probably the least spicy (if I recall correctly), while Old Szechuan’s version is the most variable. Sometimes it’s very spicy with lots of szechuan peppercorns, and sometimes it’s just bits of fried chicken with green beans. 7 Stars Pepper serves it also, but their version tends to be pretty heavy on the salt. On some menus it’s just called dry-cooked chicken.
    Anyway, it’s great no matter how you look at it and was one of the dishes that made me really consider Szechuan food specifically and Chinese food more generally in a different light.

  9. blb says:

    Oh and I forgot one, which also happens to be on the east side. There is also Bamboo Garden. Their version is also pretty tasty, though I haven’t been there in a while so my memory is a little dim on the specifics. They’ve got lots of offal on the menu too, if you’re into that.
    In a different vein, Kung Ho over by I90 is another example of pretty authentic Taiwanese-style Chinese food on the east side. Note the lion’s head meatballs on the menu, which are phenomenally good. Oh man I would love some of those right about now.

  10. ts says:

    I heard elsewhere that the ownership at this place changed recently – rumor or truth? Big fan of their Dan Dan Noodles.

  11. Todd says:

    The hot chow mein hand shaven noodles with peppers, green onion, and pork are my go to dish-they are fantastic. But I will be trying the chicken dish above next time.

  12. Ian says:

    I laughed when I read your post, because even though I am on the other side of the country in Fairfax County, VA, my friends & I have the exact same problem. We eat at Hong Kong Palace, the best (almost only) Sechuan restaurant in the area, but not often enough that we are willing to forego our favorites. One of these is called “Fried Chicken with Dried Red Peppers”, and except for the green beans, its the same dish as you are stuck on! The only solution is to eat thate far more than we do.

  13. Todd says:

    Also in Bellevue and said to be very good is Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant 15005 N.E. 24th Street , Bellevue WA 98052 ~ 425-562-1552

  14. [...] Todd: Also in Bellevue and said to be very good is… [...]

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