Just before we left on our trip, I heard that Quoc Te 2 was closing and being replaced by a Sichuan Restaurant, which would bring the total of Sichuan Restaurants (I know Spicy City is sort of Yunnan, but you ever look at the menu?) on Convoy to four. I also heard that the former owner of Dede's was somehow involved, which didn't exactly thrill me since that playbook has become a cliche for me.
Still, just like I believe that we could always use another "good" Thai Restaurant, a decent Sichuan place is welcome.
So upon returning, I decided to drop by Szechuan Chef.
They've done a nice job updating the tired Quoc Te........
The thing that I found really fascinating is that this was the first time I recalled seeing the "over-sized glossy menu" in San Diego. It's something we noticed in China when we visited and it made it's was to the SGV at places like Shanghai No.1. A real page turner of glamour shots of the various dishes served. It can be perceived as really neat, or a pain, depending on your viewpoint. For me, the scatter-shot arrangement of dishes was somewhat aggravating....trying to find, say, Shui Zhu Yu (water boiled fish), means turning back and forth from page to page.....
In the end, I got tired of trying to find "my standards" and went with the Chongqing La Zi Ji(重庆辣子鸡), the Spicy Chicken with Red Chilies ($10.99).
This actually looked pretty good, but really lacked zip. It would be one of least spicy, spicy-looking dishes I've ever had. It really needed more spice and much more Sichuan Peppercorn. I liked the way the chicken was fried, but the fragrance was slightly rancid and it did taste a bit off. I'm wondering if the oil was a bit past its prime and denatured.
I saw something on the other table and ordered it. The steamed pork with mustard greens. This was a mistake.
This was very salty and had an unpleasant, bitter flavor like burnt soy sauce. Also, while the pork is supposed to be rich and luxurious, this was greasy, which meant that the person making this really didn't have the chops to pull this off or didn't care. Not to be snide but I would have preferred to have taken a bite out of the pretty, glossy photo of the dish than to have another bite of this. I actually had a friend of mine try this........she couldn't bear to have more than one bite.
Still, the prices were reasonable, and the portion size seemed perhaps a bit too large almost reminding me of Spicy King. In fact, even the flavor profile seemed similar, like it was pulled out from the same gene pool.
I talked the Missus into visiting a week or so later. As we sat and tried to order something, the Missus told me that the two women were talking in Cantonese, not Mandarin, which seemed kind of strange. We also had the same menu paralysis as before....looking over, I noticed that they had Liang Cai - cold dishes...which strangely, we hadn't seen on the menu. Maybe it's there, but we just didn't see it.
The Fu Qi Fei Pian was all meat, no offal, and was cut to a perfect thickness. The flavor was sorely lacking however. Missing light anise tones, a touch of sweetness, I even enjoy versions with a bit of black vinegar. This was pretty bland. The pig year was thinly sliced with a nice crunch, but really had no flavoring what so ever.....luckily that it's consumed mainly for the texture. I saw Kou Shui Ji 重庆口水鸡 - mouthwatering (saliva) chicken in the cold case and we got that as well. Man, talk about lacking any complexity, or even heat. No sesame paste flavor, not enough vinegar, ginger, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns.... just lacking.
I just had to try the Zi Ran Yang Rou - the Cumin Lamb.
First off, this photo doesn't show just how much lamb this was...sheesh, we ate like crazy and only got thru half! Because I make this at home so often, I enjoy ordering it just to see how things line up. Like the other dishes, there just seemed to be something missing. In this case the cumin flavor was pretty good, it could used perhaps a touch more soy sauce. The lamb was tough and really didn't taste much like lamb. I'm thinking a bit more cilantro might have helped the whole effort as well.
One of the dishes I really miss from Ba Ren was the Beef with Preserved Vegetable, so I was really interested when I saw a "Beef Sour Soup" ($10.99) that looked like it had preserved mustard greens in it. So what the heck, we ordered it.
And while it didn't quite look like the glossy in the menu, this was probably the best item I've had from this restaurant. The sourness and the ginger heightened the spice, the meat was ok...basic huo guo (hot pot) cut, not prepped in cornstarch, but that really didn't hurt the dish. Finally, something that at least hit the "suan-ku-la-xian" (sour-bitter-hot-salty) tones. We saved most of this and had it the next day and it was much better, more spicy, more sour, more better.....
So all of this meant that I give the place one more try. I'd finally got the handle on the menu and decided on one of my favorite dishes - hong you chao shou, basically won tons in hot sauce ($5.99). What I got was a large bowl of won tons in an insipid "broth".
This was just wrong....in case you want to see photos of what this is supposed to look like, you can try here. Or what the heck, how about one from our visit to Chengdu? While the won tons were decent, perhaps the wrappers a bit too thick, I thought the kou gan (口感 - mouth feel) was ok, nice and slippery. But the overall flavoring was watery and not spicy enough.
I also went with the Pork Intestines with Red Peppers ($10.99).
You know what? I'll take back what I said about the Chongqing La Zi Ji. This has got to be the least spicy, spicy-looking dish, I've ever had. A real lack of heat from scalded chilies and almost no numbing sensation from Sichuan peppercorns. The intestines were not fried well, resulting in a rubbery texture. A good version should have a nice fried crunch, before yielding to a decent chew. It's a darn shame that a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin with a Japanese name can do it better. Well, at least it had the slight offal flavor of intestine.
After this visit, I'm pretty much done, unless someone can give me some compelling reason (dish) to return. I thought the servers here are nice....they are ever so patient with all the "gringo" customers. In fact, I thought the guy's Beef and Broccoli looked much better than my won tons. The dishes I had, except one, pretty much fell flat. It had me wondering, with the beef roll, jiaozi, and other stuff on the menu and the servers speaking Cantonese, whether a "Szechuan Chef" was actually cooking here. I asked the Missus what She thought. Her answer? "He could be from Sichuan....but remember what I said....anybody from China with a wok can open a restaurant saying they're a chef." The son of the owner of Ba Ren once told me that one of the local "Sichuan Chefs" is actually from Chongqing like he says. But back in Sichuan he was a taxi driver! Heck, I could have been eating at Szechuan Taxi-driver Restaurant!!!!
4344 Convoy St
San Diego, CA 92111