It seems as though some restaurants pick the most generic-sounding name they can, almost to deliberately keep you guessing as to what kind of food they serve. Or if they serve food at all. I remember one place about 10 years ago had a sign up outside that said “Yes, we are a restaurant, not a clothing store”. The obvious solution to the confusion is to put the type of cuisine right in the name, and then people know what to expect. Problem is, if the restaurant then doesn’t deliver, customers going to be disappointed.
On a cold, miserable Saturday (which describes most of them this spring), a group of us were in the northwest around lunchtime. Remembering things I’d heard about Szechuan, we decided to stop in. First of all, it’s kind of low on atmosphere. The menus are literally falling apart. Everything was however very clean.
As you’d expect, Szechuan offers food primarily originating in the Chinese province of the same name. Typically, these flavours are extremely spicy, and I’d heard that the restaurant lives up to that reputation. One person in our group could not tolerate very spicy food, and as such, when we were asked how we wanted our food seasoned, we told our server we preferred it milder. We figured that if they typically make it extremely hot, milder would be just spicy enough. Big mistake. Apparently at Szechuan, milder often equals bland.
The only dish they couldn’t reduce the heat from was our Szechuan pickle starter, and those lived up to the name. Spicy wasn’t the only thing you could taste though, as the pickling vinegar cut through subtly as well. We followed this with both the wonton and wor wonton soups. Neither was particularly flavourful, which they should have been, regardless of our directive to make our food milder, as wonton isn’t spicy to begin with. There were however generous quantities of shrimp and barbecued pork in the wor wonton.
We followed the soups with kung pao chicken; prawns and beef in tomato, pineapple, bean and garlic sauce; noodles with shredded chicken; and beef fried rice. The kung pao chicken, which I normally love, was a disappointment. It was loaded with peanuts but again lacking in flavour. The meat quality, which is particularly important in Asian food (because you generally don’t have a knife to cut away any unpleasant bits) was not up to par. Now, I’m known as being a little obsessive about this, but I was not the only one trying to use the side of a fork to saw away at something. The beef with tomato and pineapple suffered the same meat quality issues, though the sweet flavour in this dish, and the prawns with the same sauce, was better, but still a bit bland.
Probably the best two dishes overall were the starches. The quality of the meat in both was quite good (no slippery bits, nor hacking or sawing required). The fried rice in particular was interesting, significantly different than you find in a lot of Asian restaurants. I’m not sure if it was twice-fried, or a different variety, but it was unusual and we enjoyed it.
Overall, Szechuan offers a pretty wide selection of Chinese food, from the very authentic (tripe and pig’s ear) to more mainstream dishes. The prices are reasonable (we didn’t have an item over $15) and the service pleasant enough. The problem I found is that they rely too heavily on extreme spice for most of their flavour. The dishes that weren’t eye-wateringly hot were inconsistent. Some, like our starches, were tasty. The issue with others seemed to be that when they dialled back the heat on a typically spicy dish, there were no other flavours left because there weren’t any there to begin with.
On the ratings scale:
2.5 out of 5 Stars
Szechuan Restaurant (no website)
414 16 Avenue NW