If you’ve ever had a hangover and you live in Iowa City, there’s a good chance you’ve already eaten food from Szechuan House, which offers delivery service. Their hangover standbys like orange chicken, crab Rangoon and pork fried rice are all solidly comparable to those at other Americanized Chinese places in town; however, there are 191 items on the menu, not including the separate menu of lunch specials, the $39.95 hot pot, which serves two to three people, or the other separate menu of Americanized Chinese entrees. Despite your hangover, you’d really be best served by heading to Szechuan House in person to begin your foray into the delicious, occasionally disorienting depths of its authentic Szechuan menu.
But please, be prepared: This is no P.F. Chang’s, and if that’s your benchmark for Chinese food, approach Szechuan House with an open mind, because that mall shit you’re used to isn’t even remotely the real deal.
With such a vast list of diverse choices, there are going to be some things that don’t suit everyone’s palate, but with so many dishes that are flat-out delicious, there has to be something for everyone. I’d recommend picking up a takeout menu on your first visit and crossing out things you don’t like, so you remember what to order the next time you go.
So far, I’m addicted to the perfectly fried chicken with spicy and sour garlic sauce, and also the spicy string beans, which stay bright green and crisp after a quick fry with ginger, garlic, green onion and a million little Szechuan chilies. Friends of mine also swear by the dandan noodles, and the silky ma-po tofu. And all of us agree on the entire, perfectly delicious and toothsome family of dumplings.
It’s best to go to Szechuan House with at least a few people: The majority of the tables seat eight and have lazy Susans at their centers—in keeping with the overall utilitarian decor—so a divide-and-conquer approach is a great way to try as many things as possible. It’s also better if at least a few of your companions are fearless, as you otherwise might not venture to try the ox tongue and tripe with chili sauce, say, or the spicy and hot pork kidney. The ox tongue and tripe is a home run—there’s nothing tongueish or tripeish about the tender textures of the two main elements, which are cooked perfectly in a traditional spicy Szechuan sauce. The kidney, on the other hand, reminded me in aroma and texture of a urine-scented hot dog, but a couple people I know gushed about how awesome it was—and how would I have known that I never, ever, want to eat this dish again if I hadn’t tried? It’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned.
Next time we go, I’m determined to try the hot pot; if you’ve never had (or even seen) a Chinese hot pot setup before, this looks like an incredible place to try it. When we entered the restaurant most recently, a table near us had a veritable mountain of super fresh raw meat, tofu and veggies they were enthusiastically poaching in one of the most exquisite-smelling liquids I’ve ever been near; I can’t even begin to decipher the number of spices and flavors emanating from that pot. The hot pot also offers myriad options for adventure, with a gamut of choices, ranging from the mainstream, like beef and shrimp, to such tidbits as pork intestine or pork blood.
The service at Szechuan House can be spotty, yes, and communicating with some of the less-fluent Chinese servers can be a challenge if you don’t speak Mandarin, so, if you’re vegetarian or gluten free or have some other dietary needs, I can’t assure you’ll be safe eating here—in fact, “pork blood” is listed under vegetarian options on the hot pot menu, and the menu, overall, can be a bit confusing. Also, I don’t recommend reading the online reviews, which are, by and large, pretty racist and generally not helpful. The menu has its misses, to be sure, but the beauty of preferences is that each of us has our own, and, if you’re open-minded and not afraid of the unexpected, you are bound to find something here that will change your palate, your perception of Chinese food and your possibly narrow ideas about how exciting it can be to eat in Iowa City.