Like the hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants in New York City's Chinatown, the Szechuan Royal spends little on rent, focusing instead on the quality of ingredients, their authentic preparation and speedy service.
Not surprisingly, the owners of this 17-table, one-room mom and pop restaurant are extremely sensitive to the needs of their customers. They have to be. At lunch the place is packed with office workers, all looking for quick and cheap alternatives to the fast food joints in the area.
One of the popular daily specialties for the lunch crowd is chicken with almonds, rice, unlimited tea and a fortune cookie for $3.25. The meal could easily satisfy a big eater or be shared by two less hungry diners. Likewise, the Mongolian beef or pork, at $3.65, is substantial and the baby shrimp Szechuan is so loaded with shrimp that it cannot possibly generate a profit at $3.95.
On an evening visit recently, we were surprised to find we were the only patrons. The owner and his wife immediately rushed out of the kitchen to welcome us and seat our party of four adults and three children at a large round table by the kitchen. The room was so fragrant with alluring kitchen scents we found ourselves blinking back pangs of hunger and anxious to begin a night of serious eating.
What got the evening off on the right foot was the attentive service of the owner and his wife, who took our orders personally and rushed tea, soft drinks and Chinese beer to the table. Of more value was their help in advising on orders and describing the preparations of the dishes.
We found ourselves captivatedby this middle-aged couple from China, where their families were in the food busines. Yenyao Lee brought his wife and family to the U.S. 10 years ago and they opened the restaurant about a year ago in Suitland.
Surrendering to the mouth-watering scents around us and the advice of Yenyao, we first tried the triple delights soup ($3.95): chicken, shrimp and pork with bamboo shoots, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage and super-heated rice served dramatically at our table. It was delicious.
We composed the main part of our meal with Hunan shrimp ($6.95), an immense portion of big sweet shrimp served in a peppery sauce with broccoli and bamboo shoots; kung pao chicken ($4.75), a lightly spiced, well constructed dish of diced chicken, peanuts and sauce; moo shi pork ($4.75), which the kids particularly enjoyed rolling and eating; and a house specialty called sha cha beef ($5.95). This delight was huge, with thinly sliced and tender beef combined in a pungent sauce of chili pepper, sesame, anise, garlic and peanut flavor.
We enjoyed all the dishes and were impressed by the large portions, especially given their low prices, but there were some discordant notes. Although the pancakes for the moo shi pork were obviously homemade, there weren't enough;p when we asked for more, they arrived thicker and coarser than the first light and thin ones.
The kung pao chicken was also satisfactory, but seemed skimpier than the special dishes. We also found the egg rolls to be an uninspired creation during other visits. They more closely resemble cabbage-stuffed tortillas than what most people think of as egg rolls.
Predictably, in a restaurant specializing in Szechuan food, the fire-eater in our party had to try his luck with at least one hot dish. All evening we avoided ordering excessively spiced dishes; Yenyao seasoned each one exactly a we asked and we could esily taste the food.
Our-fire eater chose to end his meal with hot sour soup as spicy as the chef could make it. When this three-alarm concoction arrived at the table, the children began sneezing from the pungent aroma of the spices. Yenyao brought beer after beer to the fire-eater, who tearfully spooned down what looked to be an otherwise delightful soup filled with vegetables and slices of pork.
We finally could eat no more, and gathered up doggie bags of rice and remnants of the entrees to take home. The food came to just $30 for seven people, while the $21.50 bar bill reflected inpart the fire-eater's unquenchable thirst.
On the ride home the kids confessed that Chinese food wasn't their first choice when dining with the older folks -- they prefer pizza and burgers -- but somehow the theater of eating communally, of at least trying the chopsticks, of watching the fire-eater crying and of listening to the tales of Yenyao's youth in China had favorably impressed them.
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Atmosphere: Casual, clean, unpretentious. Reservations: Only for large parties or specialty dishes such as Peking duck, but you should phone ahead for directions. Credit cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, MasterCard and VISA. Special facilities: Highchairs and booster sets; wheelchair accessible; free parking.