Szechuan House meets your basic aesthetic standards for strip-mall Chinese dining: maroon carpet, rolling chairs and paper lanterns in a clean space. It gets a few divey bonus points for the temporary wooden scaffolding and walkway that obstruct the entrance to the degree you wonder whether the restaurant is actually open for business.
But you don’t come to places like this for décor. You come for the food. And, at Szechuan House, the service, flavor and friendliness, not frills, make for repeat customers. That combination also makes Szechuan House in North Austin my favorite Chinese restaurant in town.
You’ll find the standard Americanized Orange Beef ($11.95) and General Tso’s Chicken ($9.95) on the menu that features more than 200 dishes. I’m sure it’s all fine and likely indistinguishable from what you might find at many other places around town. What you want are the more traditional Szechuan dishes. The ones the servers and management at Szechuan House eat. The ones they’ll direct you to if you ask for suggestions.
Start with red oil wontons ($5.99), 10 of the pinched pouches filled with minced pork boiled and drained before sliding into a bowl of savory chili oil. An order of eight steamed dumplings ($5.95) arrive hot and just slippery enough to avoid sticking to the steamer. They split and release a tiny cascade of broth, a tamer version of soup dumplings.
An appetizer of Szechuan-flavored noodles ($5.95) the size of bucatini proved a remarkable value, the al dente strands savory with flavors of peanut and bok choy. I was familiar with dishes like the Szechuan noodles, but the garlic bacon ($9.95) was a surprise in form and temperature. Almost translucent bacon topped with fierce garlic and chiles sprawled like an octopus from atop a mound of bean sprouts in a rich tawny sauce. The dish was served at room temperature, which surprised us at first. But the confusion gave way to us playing tug-of-war with the plate.
Shimmering bacon with slightly browned edges also shone in a dish of twice-cooked pork ($9.95), given fermented complexity from a sauce of black beans and sting from an abundance of jalapenos. The jalapenos nodded to familiar Mexican flavors, as did the tender piles of spiced meat in a cumin beef entrée ($12.95) packed with slivers of garlic. The cumin treatment is also given to lamb at Szechuan House, but we opted for the house special lamb ($15.95), the celery, red chiles, jalapenos and cilantro masking the mild gamey flavor of the meat.
If you’re confused as to which dishes hew to the more traditional Chinese flavors, remember the word “mala.” You can find that oily Szechuan peppercorn and chili pepper sauce in the sliced fish with fiery sauce ($12.95). Supple hunks of fall-apart boiled fish topped with crushed peppercorns bob in a steaming bowl of fragrant and floral broth dotted with cilantro and celery.
The fiery fish summoned beads of sweat to our foreheads, but it didn’t have the sinus-opening effects of the sliced fish with spicy sauce ($12.95). The fish hunks, breaded and lightly fried but soft and flaky inside, are awash in a stir-fry of celery and fierce roasted Szechuan peppers, some the size of crawfish. I needed my water refilled continuously. Our server was happy to oblige. He also entertained all of our questions and suffered our lukewarm jokes.
I had the same server at Szechuan House on repeat visits. His name is J. At first, I thought J. misunderstood me when we asked whether they made their noodles in house. The answer seemed to be no, but I think J. thought we were asking whether he specifically prepared them (they are not made in house). The reason for his confusion became clear when we realized his comprehensive knowledge of the menu. From the components of certain sauces to his excited dish suggestions and his mild look of disappointment when he charted our own course, J. provided the kind of service experience you hope to find at every restaurant.
For dessert we had a laugh (and the last of the Murphy-Goode pinot noir we brought). When I asked the owner whether they had a dessert menu, she gave a sweet chuckle and delivered our fortune cookies.
11005 Burnet Road. 512-832-8989, AustinSzechuanHouse.com
Rating: 8 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and fried rice $3.20-$10.95; lunch specials, $6.95-$7.95; entrees $7.95-$15.95
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambiance and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: With solid execution of traditional dishes and exceedingly friendly service, Szechuan House is currently my favorite Chinese restaurant in town.
Notes: No alcohol is served at Szechuan House. You can bring beer or wine for no fee. Delivery offered within a four-mile radius.