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A Star of the East

[whitespace] China Szechwan
Robert Scheer

Hot Stuff: China Szechwan's Richard Sum and Oi Ping make a mean broccoli in garlic sauce.

China Szechwan has charmed SC for many moons

By Christina Waters

WHEN YURI RETURNED from his latest polar expedition--with a few pit stops for video reconnaissance in the Gobi--he took me to dinner at China Szechwan, where master chef Yuen still rules the culinary province of broccoli in garlic sauce and mushu pork. The place was packed--as usual--on a chilly night last week. Somehow when it's cold outside, all that red decor that characterizes this old diner-turned-neighborhood-Chinese-restaurant feels especially warming--almost as warming as the killer hot and sour soup that China Szechwan owns.

Baskets of vibrant crimson poinsettia lined the row of cherry-colored booths, and the hanging lanterns swayed slightly as servers patrolled the aisles, making sure beers were served cold and the freshly created entrées served steaming hot.

It's hard to divert from my customary favorites here: the appetizer of pot stickers--plump, moist half moons filled with cabbage, pork and spices--and the tiny cups of sinus-clearing hot and sour soup. The stuffed wonton pot stickers (six for $4.25) were chewy and delicious, especially when drizzled with a sauce of soy, rice vinegar and incendiary chile oil that Yuri and I whipped up in our dishes.

The soup was just a notch below desirable firepower that evening, but still nicely swirled with fat ribbons of tofu, plenty of egg and pork strips plus the gelatinous cloud ear mushrooms that give it the characteristic musky undertone. I love this soup--and even when it's only burning on five cylinders, it beats the fried rice off anybody else's version.

So after toasting Yuri's new photojournalism spread on the tribes of the Gobi with ice-cold Tsing Tao beers ($3)--the perfect partner for every single item on this menu--we took possession of an astonishing array of steaming platters, all aromatic with chiles and rice wine, tomato and Szechwan peppercorns, each glowing with deep golden and red tones.

Yuri went wild for Chef Yuen's archetypal twice-cooked pork ($6.50), gorgeously presented, a temple rising high with slabs of thin, spiced pork, fat wedges of green peppers and satiny leaves of cabbage. A sweet/hot sorghum molasses and soy sauce coated each bite of this signature classic of the Szechwan provincial repertoire--and China Szechwan still does it to perfection.

We refilled our little bowls with impeccable white rice and moved our attention to the other entrées, a sea of shrimp and chestnuts in spicy chile sauce ($7.75) and one of my favorite dishes of all time, the difficult and rewarding family-style fried tofu ($5.95) that this restaurant does with miraculous splendor. The triangles of tofu, cut the size of a baby's fists, are somehow dipped in an invisible batter and then quickly fried so as to achieve a slightly crisp exterior while retaining an impossibly soft, silken--almost custardy--interior. A sauce of ground beef, red peppers and soy creates a charming mixed metaphor--yes, this is a tofu dish, but no, it is not a vegetarian surrogate for serious culinary enchantment. Yuri was smitten and stopped talking about his latest videography awards for a full three minutes.

The dish of plump shrimp was nice but not dramatically seductive. The sauce, slightly sweet and filled with tomatoes and ginger, was delicious, yet for my tastes a bit too sweet, and my palate tired of it rather quickly. But Yuri loved it and was thrilled that there would be plenty of all the dishes to take home for a huge lunch the next day.

The off-beat charisma of beer and fortune cookies filled our mouths as we got up to leave--assured by the paper fortune that we would travel to the East sometime this autumn. Sounds like a delicious prospect.

China Szechwan
Address: 221 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 423-1178
Hours: Lunch 11am-2:30pm Tue.-Sat., dinner 5-9pm Tue.-Sun. (till 9:30pm Fri.-Sat.), closed Mon.
Price: Inexpensive.
Chef: Ming-Chan Yuen
Ambiance: *** Classic Chinese decor, lots of playful red touches, easy-access counter dining and those fabulous booths
Service: *** Used to volume business and a fast pace, this staff doesn't miss a beat
Cuisine: *** Often achieving greatness, the execution is always fresh, flavorful and generous
Overall: A downtown treasure, China Szechwan has been satisfying the Chinese food cravings of enlightened diners for years. Still does.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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