Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Atmosphere: Chinese modest; informal.
Price range: Entrees from $2.50 to $16 at dinner.
Credit cards: American Express, Diner's Club, Master Charge, VISA
Special facilities: Parking lot, booster chairs, accessible for customers in wheelchairs.
Our friend Jane Douglas, 10, had come all the way from Ireland to visit the United States, and in our efforts her show her places typical of America, we, of course, took her to a Chinese restaurant.
We chose the Szechuan Garden in Potomac, in one of those typical American shopping centers that actually you'd rather not show anybody. Anyway, the restaurant itself is small and minimally decorated with Chinese calligraphy and a few plants.
Food, not atmosphere, is what counts at the Szechuan Garden. The cooking is done with an inventiveness and care that is anything but typical.Sauces and seasonings are used with restraint, and even the old standards seem to revive in looks and taste.
The service was fast, rendered by a stern waitress who rattled off the ingredients in various dishes before we even asked her to. (We might add that a second Szechuan Garden has opened in Bethesda, but we preferred the original to its spiffier offspring.)
Our young friend from Dublin said this was her first visit to a Chinese restaurant ("Mummy and Daddy sometimes go") but she didn't flinch in the face of weird things like bean curd and jelly noodles. We warned her that Szechuan cooking can be quite spicy. She briefly scanned the American selections, then with a leap of faith, decided to go Chinese.
After exhausting all discussion and the waitress' patience, we agreed on three main dishes for our foursome, which also included my husband and one of our daughters. First we got two appetizers, and it was then that Jane became a wanton won ton freak.
For $1.95, we were delivered 12 won tons, deep fried noodles, crisp and fragile but slightly soft in the middle where a bit of meat filling was tucked in. This set Jane on a binge - she had won tons the next day at a Chinese lunch stand - and we concluded that her parents had had their last meal alone in a Chinese restaurant.
Jane was less impressed with the egg rolls, and in an act of treason said it was the looks of the green stuffing that put her off. Actually the filling was passable, but the dough was soggy and came off poorly next to the wondrous won tons.
The Szechuan Garden offers fewer entrees than most Asian restaurants, but the dishes are far more imaginative. The king crab with hot garlic sauce sounded just dandy as did the marinated "lover's shrimp." Even a lamb dish - made with broccoli in a chili pepper sauce - is featured.
Dry sauteed string beans didn't tickel anybody's fancy much, but it was novel. So was the hacked chicken in hot sauce.
Our daughter voted for good ole beef with snow peas, $4.75, and we were glad she did. The snow peas, fresh and crunchy, were studiously avoided by our Irish friend, but she liked the beef in its gingery sauce.
Jane had chosen Szechuan pan fried noodles, $3,75, a dish new to all of us. It was made with very long with very long, skinny spaghetti-like noodles, only they were chewy.The whole shebang was covered with a pungent sauce that included onions and sliced bamboo shoots. Jane said it was lovely which is Irish for terrific.
Our last pick was diced chicken with peanuts, $4.95, wherein the chicken was gently fried in a light batter and covered most sparingly with a pale sauce. Nobody found a peanut.
We also had those little scoops of boiled rice and several liters of tea.
Our leftovers, which were considerable, were packed up in pint-sized boxes and presented later to my brother, the young penniless artist, who was only too happy to accept.
Though we had no room for dessert, we were given a plateful of fortune and almond cookies anyway. We caught Jane as she was about to bite into her paper fortune, which predicted she would be a winner what, it didn't say, but we[WORD ILLEGIBLE] pot of gold at the rainbow's end would include a pile of won tons.
Our bill, including tip, at this Szechuan Garden of delights was $27.76.