My, how quickly the times have changed. Just a few years ago, you could count on one hand the number of restaurants in the Triangle serving authentic Chinese food. Ordering was an experience akin to knowing the password at a Prohibition-era speakeasy. You had to know to ask for a special menu, separate from the Chinese-American offering that accounted for the bulk of the restaurant’s business.
One of those restaurants was Super Wok, a deceptively unassuming little hole-in-the-wall that I reviewed in 2009, a few months after it opened in a Cary strip mall. I’d heard through the grapevine that the chef was cooking up some Szechwan, and the word was that this was the real high-test deal.
The chef turned out to be Zengming Chen, whose long culinary career had begun as a teenage apprentice in his grandfather’s restaurant in Fuzhou. His authentic offering – which, in addition to the rightly praised Szechwan specialties, included a few equally worthy dishes from other regions – earned the restaurant four stars.
In the seven years since that review, the number of restaurants serving authentic Chinese fare has ballooned to more than two dozen. Nowadays, you’ll routinely be given – without having to request – a menu that might feature any number of regional cuisines, from Taiwanese to Indo-Chinese. Oh, and chef Chen has moved on from Super Wok.
Happily, he didn’t go far. In July, Chen opened Szechuan Garden in Morrisville, in the space that for the past several years was home to Orient Garden. The new location boasts a larger dining room and snazzier decor, highlighted by colorful tile mosaic murals (peacocks in a camellia garden spanning one wall, dragons cavorting across another) inherited from the previous tenant.
What hasn’t changed is the quality of the food, though the authentic dishes are now more readily accessible, incorporated into a single bilingual menu where they now outnumber the Chinese-American offering. Now, you’ll find salted chicken and spicy beef and tripe (both served cold) cheek by jowl with egg rolls and crab Rangoon under the Appetizers heading, and dry pepper chicken sharing space with the familiar takeout favorite, General Tso’s, under Poultry.
If tripe (or chicken gizzards, another option) isn’t your thing, then straightforward sliced chicken in chile oil offers a less challenging taste of the Szechwan repertoire of cold starters. So does dry spicy beef: bite size batons of lean, chile-flecked meat with a dense, gratifyingly chewy texture similar to that of Thai jerky. House-made pork dumplings in chile oil also deliver the Scoville units, and are served warm.
For a mellower start, round up a party of four and venture beyond Szechwan borders for West Lake beef soup, a soothing cornstarch-thickened brew riddled with bits of ground beef, shiitake mushrooms and delicate jade-green cubes of chayote squash. Or sneak over to the Chef Specials section for fried eggplant “boxes,” an entree offering that adapts beautifully as a shared starter: chunks of eggplant stuffed with minced pork and chives, then fried in a tempura-like batter and served with a spicy dipping sauce on the side.
When it comes to choosing an entree, you could safely close your eyes and point to the category of your choice, from Pork (give yourself a mulligan if it lands on intestine hot pot and the prospect makes you squeamish) to Tofu. That said, be advised that the Chef Specials category truly lives up to its billing.
That’s where you’ll find exemplary renditions of Szechuan dishes such as cumin lamb and the incendiary tri-pepper chicken (one of those peppers being the tongue-numbing Szechwan peppercorn).
At the other end of the spectrum is the fancifully named squirrel tail fish, whose origins are closer to the chef’s native Fujian province than to Szechwan. The dish gets its name from the appearance of the pair of flounder filets after they’ve been scored in a crosshatch pattern before being deep-fried and glazed with a hot and sour sauce spangled with green peas, diced carrots and mushrooms. If such a versatile chef as Chen could be said to have a signature dish, then the crowd-pleasing squirrel tail fish is it.
Chef Chen recently added another dozen dishes to his list of specialties, further broadening his palette to include the likes of stir-fried king oyster mushrooms, a rustic brisket stew redolent of star anise, and a more than respectable Peking duck – no need to order in advance, soup $5 extra.
Regardless of entree, a family-style vegetable side dish is a must in my book. For me, it’s always stir-fried pea shoots with garlic when they’re available. When they’re not, a list that includes nearly a dozen options from wok-blistered green beans to eggplant with basil to lotus root with pork belly offers ample consolation.
Service is friendly, attentive and impressively efficient in the family-run restaurant. Chen’s wife, Ghou Xiuquing helps out wherever she’s needed in the kitchen or dining room, and the couple’s son, Alan Chen, manages the restaurant. Ask the junior Chen about those dragons on the wall, and he’ll explain that they’re a symbol of good fortune. I’m sure Morrisville – for that matter, anyone who walks into Szechuan Garden – would agree that they’re working.
10285-300 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville; 919-468-6878
Atmosphere: colorful and casually inviting
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: homemade dumplings, eggplant “boxes,” squirrel tail fish, tri-pepper chicken, cumin lamb, pea shoots
Open: Lunch daily, dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.