Maybe you were terrified, as I was, for those few weeks this summer when Szechuan House was suddenly closed, with no warning. How could we gird ourselves against the upcoming Iowa winter with none of the now-familiar comfort of our favorite delicacies? With what would we fend off fall’s hangovers if not with the delivery of spicy and sour garlic chicken? What on earth would we do?
Well, as you may have learned recently, that summer panic was for naught: Szechuan House, 320 E Burlington St, reopened on Aug. 12 with a new owner, a new chef, new decor and a dazzling new menu. If you were a diehard fan of the restaurant’s previous incarnation, you’ll find some of your old favorites on the new menu. They may not be made exactly the same way as before, but they’re absolutely worth another chance.
My winter 2016 addiction, lamb with ginger and scallions, remains on the menu, but it’s enticingly better than it used to be, with crispier lamb and a more nuanced sauce. Ditto the dangerously delicious dandan noodles, which are served layered with ground pork and spinach in complexly spicy chili oil, allowing diners to select their own spice level; stirring in more sauce equals higher levels of addictive spice. Classic Szechaun fried string beans are now made with a small amount of pork, whereas the previous dish was vegetarian. Needless to say, the addition of pork is decadent and delicious, as it so often is.
Owner Yifu Wang lived in New York City for 10 years, where he and his brother, chef Zhao Gang, operated a similar restaurant. After a cross-country drive with his wife, Wang decided he wanted to move to Iowa, for a “more relaxed life.” The previous owners of Szechuan House were interested in selling, so the opportunity was too good to resist, and the brothers and their families moved to Iowa. Wang is a fixture in the dining room, milling about and socializing with customers, answering questions and offering helpful input for undecided diners.
It’s tough to figure out your own favorites when you’re ordering from home, as several of the more traditional and complex dishes don’t lend themselves to easy takeout ordering. San bei chicken is one of many dishes to arrive at the table in a sizzling bowl of bubbly liquid, served atop a flaming can of heat. Bobo chicken is skewered and served submersed in a pot of chilled, flavorful sauce. Sliced, boiled pork belly with garlic sauce is served draped over what can only be described as a small replica of a lawn chair. These features are lost in delivery.
Ideally, then, you’ll go to Szechuan House with six or so of your favorite dining companions and order a variety of dishes. Be cautious if you’re visiting with vegetarians, as many dishes that would seem to be vegetarian are not, and ingredients aren’t fully listed on the menu. The service staff is informed and conscientious, though, and have said they will happily accommodate vegetarians.
So far, I can’t get enough of the fatty beef with pickled sauce, a lovely, shallow bowl of sour, spicy broth layered with enoki mushrooms, pickled peppers, cabbage and luxuriously rich slices of beef. I’m eager to try the tabletop barbecue dishes, which the chef will introduce this winter, and I need to gather some troops so we can share the chef’s signature dish, a giant pan of chili oil, peppers and cilantro surrounding a whole grilled fish. The menu is vast and appealing, both new and familiar, and I look forward to befriending it as the weather begins to turn cool.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 250.