If you’re a frequent patron of authentic Chinese restaurants, you’ve no doubt come across dishes whose names, as rendered in English, range from quaintly poetic to downright indecipherable. Lion’s head meatball and squirrel tail fish, neither of which contain their namesake mammals in their ingredients lists (their names are fanciful allusions to their appearance), come to mind.
You won’t find either of these delicacies on the menu at Szechuan Taste, but you will encounter a veritable glossary of enigmatic names. In some instances, the name of a dish at least gives you a hint as to what you’re in for. Spicy storm fish, for instance, features bite-size nuggets of swai that are flash-fried and then stir-fried (or, with a little imagination, “storm-tossed”) with celery, chiles and cilantro.
Other names, such as the “brew wine ball of glutinous rice,” leave considerably more to the imagination. I don’t know what image comes to mind when you read those words, but I pictured a ball of sticky rice (aka glutinous rice), something like the lotus leaf-wrapped dim sum classic, with a sauce that I supposed might be fortified with rice wine (aka brew wine).
Naturally, I just had to order it.
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Barely two minutes later, manager Derek Huang walked up to our table. His official title is manager, that is, but I’d say “ambassador” is a more fitting term for the affable young man who moved here from California in 2005, and who has made it his mission to make Szechuan Taste’s authentic fare accessible to everyone. And perhaps “came to the rescue” is a more accurate description than “walked up to our table.”
“I noticed you ordered the brew wine ball,” Huang said, “and I thought you might want to know that it’s sweet.”
He described the dish – a soup, as it turns out – noting that it’s popular at festivals. He went on to say that, while brew wine ball is listed among the appetizers, he has found that many Americans prefer to save it for dessert.
That’s just what we did. Huang’s description proved accurate: a fancy take on egg drop soup, perfumed with the fermented fragrance of rice wine. Beneath the surface, which glittered with with ruby-red goji berries, were balls of glutinous rice flour about the size and texture of tapioca balls in bubble tea.
The only thing Huang neglected to tell us was that the bowl is huge – more than enough for two servings for each of our party of four. Then again, maybe that’s what “popular at festivals” was hinting at.
For the most authentic experience of a cuisine that doesn’t distinguish between appetizer, entree and dessert courses, you could of course start with the brew wine ball of glutinous rice. Or fried rice cakes (not those Styrofoam disks you buy at the grocery store; think soft and spongy, on the order of Japanese mochi) with brown sugar.
But if you prefer a savory start to your meal, you’ve got some tough choices to make. You could happily play it safe with the ever-popular scallion pancake. And you certainly won’t go wrong with homemade dumplings, or pork-stuffed wontons in red chile oil.
Order sister’s diced rabbit (named for the recipe’s originator, so the story goes), and Huang will likely appear at your table to warn you that the dish has a lot of little sharp bones. He’s right. Speaking as a fan of whole fish and goat dishes, I found the rabbit not worth the work.
Eating doesn’t get any easier – or if you like spicy food, more enjoyable – than lamb on toothpicks. Order this one, which lives up to its name with bite-size morsels of lean lamb, each skewered on a toothpick, and amped up with an avalanche of toasted red chiles (and a jolt of Szechuan peppercorn), and you’ll understand why Huang says the dish is all the rage in New York. And you’ll be fervently looking forward to the day when Szechuan Taste’s beer and wine license is approved.
Lamb on toothpicks earns a one-chile icon rating on the menu, so be advised that you should take a two-chile rating seriously, of which there are several, on a menu that’s liberally seasoned with the Szechuan region’s namesake peppercorn. That said, you can ask the kitchen to dial the heat up or down, within reason. By all means, tweak it to your preferred level for Chongqing hot and spicy chicken, boneless nuggets flash-fried in a chile-spiked breading. And double check to see if that beer and wine license has come in yet.
That’s not to say that those with a low tolerance for Scoville units lack for options. Pork with shredded dry bean curd, for one, in an umami-rich brown sauce. Steamed whole fish (tilapia, typically) is supremely delicate, and Leshan grilled fish turns up the heat a bit with a patchwork of lotus root, cauliflower, celery and potato in a judiciously spicy sauce.
And you could make a most satisfying vegetarian feast with the likes of dry-sautéed green beans, water spinach, “street corner” potato strips and eggplant in garlic sauce.
The restaurant, open since last August in Cary’s Wellington Park shopping center, is an inviting spot with a contemporary Asian decor in rich warm tones and an attractive patio hung with red lanterns. The dining room is frequently bustling with customers who clearly already know that “boiled series fish” is a sort of hot pot that’s considerably more palatable than its English name suggests.
If you didn’t know that (I didn’t), and if you’re curious about, say, fiery temper quick-fried duck tongue, or mouth-watering frog leg (“daily farm fresh,” according to the menu), just ask Derek.
6404 Tryon Road, Cary
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: contemporary Asian
Noise level: moderate
Service: efficient; manager Derek Huang helps overcome language barrier with some servers
Recommended: lamb on toothpicks, red chile oil wontons, Chongqing chicken, spicy storm fish, Leshan grilled fish, vegetable dishes
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Other: no alcohol (beer and wine license pending); accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; 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.