If you’re interested in authentic Szechuan cuisine, make a visit to Szechuan House on Nottingham Way in Hamilton. There you can experience many dishes from the Chengdu region of China, home of the giant pandas.
Owner Lisa Shao took over the restaurant a year and a half ago (but kept the chef) and brings diners freshly-made, traditional Szechuan dishes. Some of them pack such a powerful punch that you will be left with a moist brow and a stinging tongue (…but in a good way).
A word to the wise – NEVER drink water to douse the flames of spicy food. That only carries the heat down your throat. Eating rice is the way to go. (In Indian restaurants, I would suggest yogurt too.)
I visited Szechuan House with some very experienced Chinese diners who ordered some of the best (and hottest) representations of Szechuan cuisine.
The first dish was Sliced Beef & Tripe with Roasted Peanut Vinaigrette. The first surprise was that it was served cold. The second was that our friends were not kidding about the heat. It was hot, VERY hot. It is traditionally served with Shredded Seaweed with Garlic. The two dishes together are called “Husband and Wife” because of their affinity for each other. The seaweed is very cooling after the spice of the beef and tripe. By the way, if you’ve never had tripe before, it’s no big deal to eat (as long as you don’t think about it too much). It just tastes a bit rubbery.
The next dish we tried was Tea Smoked Duck. This is often a banquet dish and rarely made at home because of the complicated preparation. The duck is marinated with Szechuan peppercorns and other spices in Chinese rice wine. Then it’s boiled, towel-dried and allowed to air dry. At that point it’s ready to be smoked with black tea leaves before being boiled again. Finally it’s given a final deep fat frying. Whew! All that effort produces a wonderful dish. The duck is served on the bone and the meat is very tender with an appealing smoky flavor.
Then came Happy Fish in Spicy Soup and spicy it was. Juicy chunks of flounder were swimming in a spicy soup studded with scallions and dried chili peppers. It was very flavorful and the robust soup contrasted nicely with the mild fish.
Softshell Crab on Volcano was a showstopper. Beautifully fried pieces of crab with vegetables were wrapped in a big package of foil to resemble a volcano. The whole thing is surrounded by Shaoxing wine, a strong Chinese rice wine and set on fire! The dish stayed blazing for quite a while! When you open up the foil, there are no shells to play with, just a really big helping of delicate crab meat. It was good!
Last, but not least, was Eggplant with Minced Pork and Garlic Sauce. In fact, this was my favorite dish of the evening. The eggplant had been cut in large rectangular pieces to resemble fish fillets. They were battered and fried and served with a heavenly garlic sauce chock full of minced pork. The sauce was spicy, but also slightly sweet and was absolutely delicious over rice.
Szechuan House has a large menu to choose from with many special dishes, some with a kick, some not. Try a few that I’ve recommended and let me know about any others you discover that I should try next time. Take-out and catering is also available and Szechuan House is BYOB.
2022 Nottingham Way
Hamilton, NJ 08619
Open Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. noon-10 p.m.