Szechuan House is a model neighborhood eatery: Its menu is both extensive and fairly priced. It offers carryout and free delivery for orders over $15. Service is swift and consistent, if a bit reserved. At its best, Szechuan House is capable of turning out a fine Chinese dinner.
The introduction to the restaurant is a pleasant one -- the recently refurbished dining room is sedate and pretty but not so sophisticated as to deter the jeans and T-shirt crowd. If you'd like to stay on course, avoid most of the appetizers including the flaming pu pu platter -- misspelled on the menu and misconceived in the kitchen. Aside from the marinated beef strips, the fire was the highlight of this dreary sampler of hors d'oeuvres. Wontons were crisp but devoid of filling. Fried shrimp were batter-logged. Egg rolls were heavy, their wrappers exceedingly tough. A separate order of steamed dumplings, accompanied by a bowl of fiery chili-infused dipping sauce and plumped with finely seasoned ground pork, also suffered from rubbery, weighty and too thick casings.
I'd start instead with a bowl of soup. Crab and pea soup is a pleasant offering, supported with plenty of crab and a fine chicken broth. The hot and sour soup was both, the delicate balance bolstered by a dark and strong beef broth, flecked with fine black mushrooms, pork and bean curd, and served with a plate of crisp noodles. Like a number of dishes that appear on the dinner and carryout menus, soups are not listed on the lunch menu, so be sure to ask the waitress what's available.
As for main courses, Szechuan House boasts about a hundred dishes, although close inspection reveals many to be variations on themes. There are Chinese-style curries, duck prepared three ways (and available in both half and whole portions), a score of vegetable plates, noodle dishes, and a concession to American tastes -- a handful of chow mein selections. Chicken, pork and seafood can be had Szechuan style, Hunan style, mixed with fried rice or glazed with garlic, black bean or sweet and sour sauces.
If you exclude the lackluster sweet and sour preparation, sauces at Szechuan House tend to be flavorful and tailored to each dish. The sauce that tops the crisp skinned Yuling duck, for instance, is darker and richer than the gentle gravy that is paired with a delicious plate of lamb with scallions, a real winner of a dish, abundant with thin shavings of savory meat, scallions and bamboo shoots. Shrimp with garlic sauce is at once subtle and slightly sweet, featuring pearly pink shrimp in a tangle of noodles and assorted vegetables. Moo shu beef -- a blend of seasoned shredded meat and bean sprouts, rolled in pancakes and served with a pungent plum sauce -- is a fine version of that predictable Chinese menu inclusion.
Items designated as "hot and spicy" impart more of a tingly sensation than a fiery blast. Still, the Szechuan House Lo Mein was a teasingly spiced bed of slippery fine noodles blended with a generous combination of pork, beef, mushrooms, scallions and bits of cabbage.
Lunch specials (there are two selections offered daily) are a real bargain: soup, a main dish, fried rice and tea for $3.95. At that price, it was easy to excuse a bit of oversalting on a generous plate of chicken kew.
Speed and efficiency are the staff's strong points. There's no waiting for food or lingering for the check. On the other hand, questions about the menu are often misunderstood and thus left unanswered. And you might well question what to expect from a dish designated as "lamp curry" on the menu.
The offering of hot towels to wash one's hands after dinner is a nice touch, although not everyone might want to smell of Brut cologne. Dessert is best left to the fortune cookies, which arrive along with your check.
Szechuan House is not a perfect restaurant. But it is a Chinese eatery good enough to look forward to returning to, and affordable enough to do so often.