Finding credible Sichuanese food outside its home territory can be a challenge. So for any connoisseur of "ma la," the arrival of Szechuan Garden deep in suburban Beaverton is cause for elation.
Ma la describes the distinctive sensation that comes from the Sichuan peppercorn, which isn't a peppercorn at all. The brick red and olive green nuggets are actually the seeds of a prickly ash tree—part of the citrus family—which possess numbing and sour qualities that simultaneously shift your salivary glands into overdrive.
In the best Sichuanese dishes, these "peppercorns" mingle with the heat of chopped fresh and dry red chiles that form the foundational flavors that draw supplicants to Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, where holes in the wall and formal restaurants alike vie to propel patrons into a drooling, sweat-dripping frenzy.
The menu at Szechuan Garden is compendious, so it is important to focus and understand how to navigate all the options. First, ignore any dishes that are specialties of other parts of China. The Shanghainese soup dumplings ($9.95), for example, were fresh and well-proportioned, but you can find better elsewhere. Likewise, skip the tired Americanized standards, like orange chicken ($12.95). Again, it is a decent rendition, but not why you visit a Sichuanese specialist, let alone one that isn't mailing it in for the masses.
Second, unless you are a complete spice wimp—in which case you shouldn't be visiting a Sichuanese restaurant to begin with—ignore the chile ratings on the menu. They are only there for the fearful. Far too many wonderful dishes risk being ignored because they bear a dreaded five-chile rating. Not one induced any digestive trauma or even a serious sweat—and I'm no culinary masochist. The converse guidance is, if you are an insane chilehead, ask, beg or cajole the nice staff to kick it up for you. The owner, Daniel Chen, who was formerly affiliated with Szechuan Chef on Southwest Macadam Avenue, has doubtless heard far crazier requests.
For a well-rounded meal, say for a group of four, order at least one hot pot dish, a fried item, noodles, a vegetable and maybe a bonus dish.
Hot pots can be wet or dry. The former refers to a protein of some sort partially immersed in a flavorful broth infused with chile and Sichuan peppercorns, plus a few other ingredients typically sharing the pot. Tablemates share the largesse, picking out pieces of meat or whatnot until the fiery liquor is all that remains.
The best of the lot at Szechuan Garden is the Hometown Flavor Hot Pot with lamb ($15.95), a subdued-looking assemblage of tender lamb slices, bits of mushroom, a few slices of potato and more in a hearty gravy. Another option in this category is the classic Ma Po Tofu ($12.95), in a liberally spiced, brick red broth, deepened with ground pork. A vegetarian version ($11.95) is also available. Among the dry pots—distinguished primarily by the absence of much broth—fish ($14.95) or prawns ($15.95) can be the key ingredient, but for something different, try the sliced lotus root ($13.95). It has a bit of crunch and, like some other vegetables, tends to absorb surrounding flavors.
Among the fried items, the Sichuanese-savvy are surely familiar with Chong Qing chicken, a standard of the genre. The Szechuan Garden version ($14.95) is excellent. Chunks of barely battered chicken get a quick, transformative turn in a hot wok and arrive all crusty, salty and spicy but still juicy, and suitably showered with chiles—pick around the dried ones, eat the fresh at your own risk—peppercorns, a few pieces of chopped green bean, and a flurry of white sesame seeds. Even better, though, is squid prepared in a similar manner ($13.95), though deep fried. It's a little crunchier and sweeter than the chicken and not quite as common.
Noodle dishes include dan dan noodles ($8.95), a classic of linguinelike pasta embellished with ground pork, Sichuan peppercorn, chile oil and a spray of chopped scallion. Szechuan Garden also offers thick, irregularly cut, hand-shaven noodles as an option with numerous other noodle-icious offerings.
On the vegetable side of the ledger, if the lotus root isn't enough, run with spears of wok-fried eggplant with hot—as in red chile—garlic sauce ($10.95) or simple dry-cooked string bean perked up with garlic and a nudge of ma la.
From the top to the bottom of the long menu, this is a solid newcomer on a slim local Sichuanese food stage. It's worth the schlep.
EAT: Szechuan Garden, 18725 NW Walker Road, Beaverton, 971-245-5676, szechuangarden.net. 11 am-2:30 pm and 4:30-9:30 pm Monday-Friday, 11 am-10 pm Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.