I can name only a few Chinese restaurants in Baltimore that people are willing to travel any distance for. And why should they? Most places have interchangeable names like the Hunan Gourmet Dragon and Golden Szechuan Palace; and the food seems pretty interchangeable, too. Not bad, but predictable.
Whoever first described Chinese food as healthful wasn't thinking about the run-of-the-mill American-Chinese restaurant cuisine, with its heavily fried foods, thick sauces, overcooked vegetables and plenty of salt. Sometimes that's exactly what you want -- admit it -- but in that case you might as well just go to your neighborhood Szechuan Hunan Dynasty Inn.
The new Szechuan House that opened next to the Galleria in Towson a couple of months ago is a cut above run-of-the-mill, but it's still going to have trouble convincing people that it's worth traveling for. Especially with house specialties like, and I quote, "softshell crabs with broccoli in heavy sweet and sour sauce." Plus the Szechuan House doesn't have a liquor license, which means you can't get one of those drinks with the little umbrella in it.
What it does have is plenty of parking. It has a staff that figures good service may make up for not getting a mai tai cocktail. It has drinking water with lemon slices and steaming hand towels after a sticky meal. It has tiny complimentary bowls of rainbow sherbet for dessert. And, if you hit upon the right dishes, it has some very good food.
As we sat down I ordered half a Peking duck, which takes about 20 minutes to prepare. It was ready just as we finished our first courses, and was the high point of our meal. The mahogany-brown, crisp-skinned duck is carved at tableside. Then the waitress rolls the juicy, fat-free meat and crackly skin in a thin pancake spread with hoisin sauce and sprinkled with shredded green onion. She brushed on too much of the sweet sauce for my taste, so you may want to assemble your own.
A special of the day was a whole 2-pound red snapper, which you can have steamed or crispy. Crispy is Chinese menu-ese for deep-fat fried. If you get the fish crispy, it comes with a "delicious heavy sauce." (As though heaviness is a virtue in sauces.) But the firm, sweet flesh of the steamed fish -- our choice -- was complemented by an ethereal sauce enhanced with fresh ginger and slivers of bright green scallion.
Another special, Triple Delight, was one of those combinations that included everything but the kitchen sink. As combinations go, though, this was pretty good: The chicken, beef, shrimp and vegetables weren't overcooked and the sauce wasn't too thick.
Many of the dishes are conventional. And why not? That's what sells. But at the back of the menu is a section called "Country Side Taste." I was ordering for us all, and my guests looked as if I had killed their first born when I ordered "beef tendon sauteed with leek and yuba" from the country selections. They kept hoping it was a misspelling for "beef tenderloin" until the dish actually arrived at the table.
There was so much beef tendon in the highly seasoned, thick brown sauce that the butcher must have been giving it away. Yuba, by the way, is a tofulike product; and if the beef tendon doesn't offer enough texture for you, the yuba will. Definitely a dish that has a lot of chew.
If I had to do it again, and if I hadn't ordered the red snapper, I'd try the crispy peanuts with baby fish (a "hot and spicy" dish) from the country selections. Another possibility would be the stewed pork sauteed with leek and yuba. And hold the yuba.
Chow fen, another country dish, is a little more likely to appeal to American tastes. The broad rice noodles are tossed with bits of vegetables with lo-meinlike seasonings. (You can also get it with meat.)
As for first courses, the Szechuan House has all the usuals, with grease-free egg rolls and plump fried dumplings. I'd order the mildly spicy cold noodles with sesame sauce again in a second. Our table was evenly divided about the paper-wrapped chicken. My opinion, though, is the one that gets into print, and I thought they were grisly and very salty. There was no disagreement about the crab meat with asparagus soup, which had one gorgeous lump of crab meat and much too much asparagus cooked to mush. If it wasn't canned, the kitchen managed to make it taste that way.
I don't want to end on a negative note, because the Szechuan House is a very pleasant restaurant, one I'd be happy to have in my neighborhood. It isn't a fancy place -- in spite of the crystal chandeliers and white tablecloths -- but the staff treats you as well as if you were eating in a four-star establishment.