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 jalapeño 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.