As you enter Szechuan Heat, the first thing that catches your eye – trust me, you won’t miss it – is the column in the middle of the dining room.
Clad in sparkling golden glass mosaic tiles and flaring out near the top into a ceiling-spanning medallion – also gold – the column is the focal point of a glitzy modern decor inherited from the short-lived Japanese restaurant that was the previous tenant in the strip mall space.
Less noticeable, but likely to have a greater impact on the experience for many of us, is the flat-screen TV over the bar, which now plays a slideshow of menu items. Combined with the bilingual menu you’re given when you’re seated, the slideshow aims to make the restaurant’s famously fiery specialty cuisine less intimidating. Think of it as Szechuan with training wheels.
That’s not to say that you can’t score the real authentic deal here. If you’re not ordering in Chinese, though (as you’ll no doubt notice many customers do), you’re apt to find the heat levels toned down a notch from their one-to-three chile ratings on the menu.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The courageous soul ordering Chongqing spicy chicken (rated three chiles) for the first time isn’t likely to object that they aren’t served a strictly authentic plate of “Let’s see if we can find the chicken among all the chiles.” Even at the one-to-two chile level, the crunchy nuggets of batter-fried chicken deliver loads of flavor and a respectable kick. My only caveat is to get the boneless version. This advice runs contrary to the usually reliable maxim that meat on the bone is always tastier, but with pieces this small, I find that gnawing around all those tiny shards of bone just isn’t worth the effort.
In a similar vein, I can’t imagine anyone new to the mouth-numbing smack of Szechuan peppercorns objecting to its being dialed back to a pleasant tingle on the tongue. Szechuan cold bean noodles in chile sauce, one of several traditional cold dishes listed under the Appetizer heading, offers a gentle introduction to the peppercorns’ distinctive buzzy bite. More adventurous palates will find what they’re looking for in the form of another variation on the theme: Szechuan beef filet, tendon and tripe in chile oil.
A little too adventurous, you say? Try cumin lamb, a winning entree that allows the dish’s namesake spice to shine in a savory stir-fry of lean meat and cilantro. The dish is one of a half-dozen listed under the Lamb heading on a menu whose extensive offering of meat and vegetarian entrees runs to nearly a hundred. Mind you, they’re not all Szechuan – not by a long stretch.
Among the 20 options in the Poultry section, for instance, you’ll find everything from Thai basil chicken to the Taiwanese favorite, Three Cup Chicken. Throw in a generous lineup of the usual Chinese-American takeout suspects, and it’s clear that Szechuan Heat’s menu pulls out all the stops in its efforts to appeal to a wide audience.
Those of us drawn to the restaurant by its name, however, will seek out the likes of Chongqing chicken. Or tea-smoked duck, a Szechuan classic that should prove rewarding, even to those with minimal spice tolerance.
On the other hand, an asbestos palate will come in handy for the enjoyment of Szechuan fish filet in chile sauce. The dish features bite-size pieces of swai fish simmered with napa cabbage, celery and bean sprouts in a fiery sauce riddled with chile flakes, then topped off with chopped scallion and a dollop of chopped raw garlic. The dish comes the closest of all I’ve sampled to earning its three-chile rating.
Those seeking a milder seafood alternative will find it in the spicy pickled mustard fish filet hot pot, where the “spicy” is moderate and “pickled mustard” is a green leafy vegetable that adds a welcome brassy tang to the broth. The attractive presentation – in a modern asymmetrical white ceramic bowl, rather than the traditional Sterno-fueled metal cooker – is further evidence of Szechuan Heat’s efforts to broaden its appeal.
With a vegetarian entree selection of 14 dishes, ranging from sliced potato with vinegar to eggplant in garlic sauce to mapo tofu, you’d be well advised to add at least one of them to your order. You won’t go wrong with braised Chinese greens (recently bok choy) topped with mushrooms in oyster sauce. Dry-sautéed green beans had cooled somewhat between the wok and the table when I ordered them – a rare stumble on the part of an otherwise unfailingly attentive and eager-to-please wait staff.
Kitchen execution is generally solid, too, though the menu’s overzealous reach in its efforts to please all comers sometimes leads to disappointment. An appetizer listed as “mini soupy dumplings” (aka soup dumplings or xiaolongbao) that turns out to be an ordinary commercial product comes to mind.
Szechuan Heat, open since February in Parkside Town Commons, is the latest in a steady stream of new restaurants bolstering Cary’s growing reputation as a hub of authentic Asian cuisines. Given the region’s burgeoning population and its ever-broadening palate, the addition of training wheels to that hub is a welcome change.
1216 Parkside Main St., Cary
Atmosphere: glitzy contemporary Asian
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: attentive and eager to please
Recommended: cold bean noodle in chile sauce, Szechuan fish filet in chile sauce, spicy pickled mustard fish filet in hot pot, cumin lamb, braised Chinese greens and mushrooms
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Other: beer, wine and sake; 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.