Unassuming Szechuan Best can pique the interest of daring diners


Good food turns up in the oddest places. Granted, to-die-for morsels are usually found in swank, damask-draped hotel dining rooms or exquisite little inns, but a surprising number of worthy dinners have been consumed in places that look as if they were once convenience stores or gas stations

Szechuan Best, for its part, looks as if it had been a Denny's or Friendly's in a former life. Oriental art has been hung and rose bushes planted, and the dining room is spotless and cheerful. But that generic suburban-strip look, right down to the booths and faux-Tiffany lamps, suggests a place where you'd stop for quick fodder on long road trips with the kids.

I suppose you still could. The atmosphere is informal and friendly -- we were greeted with a warm "good evening" and a handshake -- and few dishes (except seafood) overstep the $10 barrier. Instead of ice cream sodas, though, you would feed the kids "three-cup squid," "bear-paw tofu" or "tiny whole fish with peanut."

The regular menu at Szechuan Best, while extensive, will not hold a lot of surprises for those well-versed in this cuisine, but the specials list -- which includes the dishes mentioned above -- will pique the interest of connoisseurs of the unusual. There's a vegetarian menu, too. All this on the Randallstown commercial strip.

For starters, the specials menu yielded a very fine soup, asparagus and corn ($2.50 for two), pale and thick and very hot, with plenty of kernels and a richly sweet corn flavor. The asparagus chunks were white and soft, but the asparagus taste was there, all right.

The four Szechuan won tons ($2.50) weren't the deep-fried tidbits we expected, but soft, slithery noodles encasing a ground chicken mixture, which fell apart immediately under the probings of our chopsticks. Both chicken and noodles were as mild as chicken-noodle soup; the Sichuan kick was in the thin but potent spicy sauce.

The "house specialties" column included a kung pao chicken and shrimp combo ($12.95) that did not knock our socks off with either greatness or mouth-searing qualities, but it was generously portioned and generally satisfying. The sauce was one-dimensional -- it seemed to get most of its flavor from Tabasco, rather than the promised garlic -- but it did wonderful things for the peanuts, which were irresistible.

The soft-shell crab ($12.95) was received with huzzahs. The crab pieces were deep-fried, but seemed somehow sin-free, as the batter was crunchy and tempura-like, and the insides moist and flavored with ginger. The seasoning, and a stir-fried garnish of scallions, gave this dish a touch of the exotic, but its crab flavor hadn't traveled too far from the Chesapeake.

Szechuan Best

Where: 8625 Liberty Road, Randallstown.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m Fridays and Saturdays.

Credit Cards: MC, V.

Features: Sichuan cuisine.

No-smoking section?: Yes.

Call: 521-0020.


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