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April 09, 2010

Szechwan Palace

Water Boiled Fish Fillets Dominic Armato

We've been moving around a lot lately (yes, this is an opening paragraph theme that needs to die), and I feel as though I'm starting to get into a new city routine. One of the first tasks is to try to locate decent spots for ethnic faves, and Chinese -- primarily Cantonese and Sichuan -- is always near the top of the list. So when you're making the short ten minute jaunt between home and the airport to drop off a visiting relative, and on the way you pass a massive Chinese-looking structure identified as COFCO, the Chinese Cultural Center, that houses a market and multiple restaurants representing various regions of China, you'd better believe that's looking like a good place to start.

Flank, Tongue & TripeDominic Armato

Cantonese is near and dear, given the amount of time I've spent in Hong Kong and Southern China, but the regional cuisine that really gets me excited these days is Sichuan. Erroneously known for simply being hot hot hot, it's a remarkably sophisticated cuisine. And though chiles are used in abundance, the idea that it's all spicy oil is a gross misperception based on lousy Sichuan food. One of the things about Sichuan that always amazes me is that when you're at a really good Sichuan restaurant, you could have five or six successive dishes where the sauce is essentially the same five or six ingredients with only very minor variations, and yet each one, through different preparations and careful balance, will have a completely unique character. The fancified homestyle of Da Ping Huo in Hong Kong is one example of this. Combined with the vibrant nature of the region's foods, this makes Sichuan especially craveable as ethnic cuisines go, and I need to have someplace I can get a fix. I had high hopes that Szechwan Palace would do the trick.

Dumplings in Spicy OilDominic Armato

Szechwan Palace is pretty swanky as my regular Chinese stops go, which is to say that it isn't a hole in the wall, as most of my favorites seem to end up being when it comes to authentic Chinese. But authenticity isn't in question here... provided you either look the part or know how to ask, that is. Szechwan Palace, like many Chinese joints, is a two-menu establishment, but a nice bonus is that the Chinese menu is far more accessible here than in many places. If you're not Asian, you'll have to ask for the red leather-bound Chinese menu rather than the laminated menu featuring the Americanized fare. But even the Chinese menu features very good translations, so provided you know to ask for it, the full range of the kitchen's ability is at your disposal. Only the specials, written on a marker board at the entrance, will require some assistance if you don't read Chinese. But on the two occasions I visited, our server was more than happy to run down the day's offerings. So with a menu that appeared to be the real deal, how did the execution stack up? Well... depends on what you get, apparently.

Crispy ShrimpDominic Armato

On my first visit, a couple readers and I (great to meet you, guys!) had a really nice meal. For cold starters, there are four or five different meats that are all tossed in the "Chef's Special Spicy Sauce." We opted for the combination of beef flank, tongue and tripe. This is always one of my favorite ways to start a Sichuan meal, chilled meat in an explosive oily ma la sauce, and Szechwan Palace's was a very nice version. I always love to see how this dish varies from chef to chef, subtle shifts in balance completely altering the character of the dish. Here it was especially heavy on the Sichuan pepper and, a little less common, very heavy on the salt, which I found that I liked quite a bit. The flavor popped, it was beautifully balanced, the meats were tender and flavorful... a great start.

Jalapeno ChickenDominic Armato

We followed that with one of the two dumplings offered on the menu. Sadly, I can't recall precisely what they were titled -- and the titles of the two were quite similar. The ubiquity of online menus has made me a little lazy when it comes to taking notes, but all Szechwan Palace shows online is a limited portion of the Americanized menu. So... you'll have to guess. The dumplings weren't remarkable, rather soft with a very simple pork filling, and the sauce was surprisingly mild... more of a light slick of fiery red oil atop a broth. Sichuan cuisine utilizes a number of different seasoned broths, and I'm not well-versed enough yet to be able to distinguish and identify them, but this one was very, very mellow, but nicely rounded -- a solid base, not an uninteresting one.

Cumin LambDominic Armato

Crispy shrimp were solid, if unexceptional, and certainly not up to the level of the plate I recently had at Peach Farm (which I realize is completely not helpful for Phoenix folks). The flavor was very nice, with seasoning that went beyond simple salt and pepper, but with shrimp that were a little tough and shells that perhaps weren't fried as hot as they needed to be, they didn't quite nail that tender shrimp / crispy shell interplay that makes this dish great when it's on. Jalapeno chicken wasn't bad, but mostly a throwaway, chunks of thigh meat stir-fried in a mostly nondescript sauce that, to its credit, featured the jalapeno nicely, both in terms of heat and flavor. But I didn't find anything terribly compelling about it, plus with the substitution of breast meat for the thigh, it could've passed for an Americanized standard at any decent Americanized Chinese restaurant... not what I'm looking for, here.

Tendon in Chef's Spicy SauceDominic Armato

Our first pass at Szechwan Palace was rounded up with two very nice dishes. The first was an old favorite that, much to my delight, they just happened to be serving that day. Cumin Beef is a menu standard, but when we inquired about the specials, we learned that they happened to be serving a cumin lamb that day, and it turned out to be a really lovely rendition thereof. I've had some versions of this dish that are positively abusive, where you can taste the cumin while the server is still 40 feet away. This one wasn't so potent, but it was very nicely balanced, the depth of the sauce providing a nice base for the still plenty strong cumin flavor. Most notably, the lamb was delicious, tender and moist and intensely flavored, not shying away from pure lamb flavor, but lacking the kind of unpleasant gaminess that can sometimes accompany lamb if it isn't handled well. A very nice dish.

Garlic Pork BellyDominic Armato

The consensus winner, however, was the Water Boiled Fish Fillets. It's a very traditional Sichuan preparation, where meat or fish is dropped into a wok filled with a spicy, bubbling concoction, simmering in the broth for moments before being brought to the table scalding hot, both from a heat and spice perspective. Our first taste of this version was a bit of a letdown, but we became more and more enamored of the dish with subsequent helpings. For starters, I think we made the mistake of serving ourselves from the oily slick on the top, rather than dipping down for the complex and flavorful broth beneath. Lesson one, dig deep. Secondly, like many foods, I think scalding hot wasn't the ideal temperature. More of the flavors came out after it had cooled off quite a bit, so I think it was actually more tasty after sitting for 15-20 minutes than it was when it first hit the table. In any case, it was a great rendition, looking like it could take your eyebrows off but surprisingly restrained given its appearance. Like the dumplings, this was another broth-based sauce, but it was much deeper and richer and more complex -- I got chile oil and toasted chiles, I got citrusy Sichuan pepper, I got garlic, I got ginger, I got fermented beans, I got leeks -- there was a lot going on, and it was all wonderfully and subtly balanced. What's more, the texture of the fish fillets was wonderful, tender and silky but firm enough to have some body. The dish was just delightful, and it got a little better every time I went back for more.

Yu Xiang ChickenDominic Armato

It was a great visit. I've eaten some outstanding Sichuan, and this wasn't it, but it was real deal and most of it was very good. Close to home, authentic, very good... what's not to like? So I rallied the troops for a return visit, wanting to sample some more of the menu. And man, there's nothing more disappointing than when a place about which you've said good things falls on their face when you bring others back. For our second trip, I made the mistake of trying all new dishes. Usually, this is a good strategy. You've got a kitchen that's shown they can make some great food, let's see what else they can do. Sadly, on this occasion, the strategy largely backfired.

Bacon and LeeksDominic Armato

We started with another of the cold appetizers in the chef's spicy sauce, this time opting for tendon rather than the mix of the previous trip. I love tendon, but this iteration wasn't doing it for me. It was very roughly sliced into thick, irregular discs, a great departure from the careful, thinly-sliced preparations I'm accustomed to. It didn't work as well for me, and the sauce didn't quite have the pop of our previous visit. Our other cold starter, the garlic pork belly, was one the lone highlight of my second trip. Another oily ma la preparation, this one was, as the name might suggest, especially heavy on the garlic. And the pork belly was delicious, tender and thinly sliced and perhaps not exactly cold -- more lukewarm -- but entirely delicious. I'd get this one again in a heartbeat, and not just because it's pork belly.

Fish Fillets in Vinegar SauceDominic Armato

But from there, the meal was a string of disappointments, starting with the other dumpling (not pictured), which looked similar but was laced with vinegar this time around. The broth was a little underpowered, but the problem was really in the dumpling, which was gummy and falling apart, and possessed of a pork filling that was tough and largely tasteless. Yu Xiang Chicken, one of what seemed like a dozen Yu Xiang preparations on the menu, was a total throwaway. Bland, flavorless white meat in a nondescript brown, oily sauce with bamboo shoots and woodear mushrooms. Like every Americanized Chinese dish you've ever had. We ordered off the Chinese menus... had I made the mistake of not specifically requesting that everything be prepared Chinese-style the second time around? Were dishes being dumbed down for us?

Water Boiled BeefDominic Armato

I underestimated the quality of the translation with our next dish. We figured a dish listed as "Bacon and Leeks" would be some sort of pork belly dish, perhaps braised, in a leek-based sauce. Not so. It was stir-fried bacon and leeks. As in, sliced, smoked bacon and sliced leeks. How was it? It was bacon and leeks. Can't really complain. But I also can't say I would have ordered it if I'd simply been wise enough to take them at their word. A near miss was the fish fillets in vinegar sauce, possessed of a lovely texture and a light sauce with a subtle vinegary tang. The problem was that it was too subtle. A little more volume on this one would've worked wonders. But it just came across as underpowered. A shame, really, because there was a good dish in there. The vinegar fish fillets paved the way for water boiled beef on the second trip. I figured we'd try another water boiled preparation, and avoid doubling up on fish fillets. It turned out to be a mistake. It was fine, but the beautiful depth and subtlety that was there on the previous trip was missing on this trip.

Ma Po DofuDominic Armato

But the one that put me over the edge was the Ma Po Dofu. I love Ma Po Dofu, and at the risk of repeating myself, I feel like Ma Po Dofu is to a Sichuan chef as tomato sauce is to an Italian-American grandmother. Everybody's take is just a little different, and it's a homey, comforting dish that's a perfect window into the soul of the chef. Let's just say that this Ma Po Dofu did not speak well for the soul of whoever prepared it. It was really astonishingly bad. Almost insulting. It was the flattest, most flavorless Ma Po Dofu I've ever tasted anywhere, bar none. All of the pieces were there, as far as I could tell, but they'd somehow become a muddled, flavorless mess. Long after everybody else had abandoned the dish, I kept going back to try more. It was flat-out bad, but I wanted to know why. What made this dish so uniquely tasteless, and how did this come out of the same kitchen as some of the really nice dishes we'd had on the first trip? Another taste provided no further insight.

So I have no idea what to think. Over two visits, I've tasted dishes that ran the gamut from delightful to The Worst Of Its Kind I've Ever Tasted. Is it a matter of coming at the right time of day? Ordering the right dishes? Being sure to explicitly state that you want everything prepared Chinese-style, even when you're ordering off the Chinese menu? I don't know. And it's frustrating, because I can't completely write the place off. I've had enough delicious dishes there that I feel compelled to return, but I've had enough awful dishes there that I'm almost afraid to do so. Consistency -- both from dish to dish and visit to visit -- is one of the greatest challenges any kitchen faces. Here's a perfect example of why.

Szechwan Palace
668 N. 44th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85008


Dominic, It might be worth seeing what appears on the Americanized menu. It wouldn't surprise me a bit it the Ma Po Dofu gets served to a broader audience and as a consequence has been made much more blandly.

In marginally related news, you'll be sad to learn that there was a fire in Lao Sze Chuan in Chicago last week. It should re-open soon, but the whole town is in mourning.

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